Dir. Sephora Woldu, United States, 2018, 61 min.

The film opens in black-and-white as director Sephora Woldu rollerblades to her mother’s San Francisco apartment, where she lays out her plans for an experimental film about what it means to be Eritrean in the Bay Area, a film she wants to produce before pursuing a doctoral program in architecture. As the two relax on the sunny balcony Woldu’s mother, skeptical, roasts coffee beans for the occasion of her daughter’s visit. (Fresh coffee-making is one of the most prominent features of Eritrean culture, whether offered during festivities or as a fundamental feature of daily life.) The smell effortlessly wafts through the screen.

Though Life is Fare is not a documentary, Woldu grounds viewers with a quick history of her family’s homeland: Eritrea — a nation bordered by Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia and the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa — formed in 1991 following three decades of armed resistance from Ethiopia, which had annexed it after the ouster of both Italian and British colonizers. Its citizenry is multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and predominately practices Christianity and Islam. Eritrea is a one-party state and, according to Human Rights Watch, its human rights record is among the worst in the world. Complete state ownership of local media earns the fledgling country a freedom of press score second only to North Korea. Their cuisine is lighter than Ethiopian fare, featuring more tomato, seafoods and Italian influences.

A collage film mostly shot in brilliant color to a jubilant soundtrack, Life is Fare clocks in at just over an hour, leaving viewers with but a surrealist glimpse into what it means to be part of the Eritrean diaspora in San Francisco. The film’s audacious freeform structure mirrors Woldu’s stated dismissal of Eritrean cultural mores to make way for a limitless exploration of identity in her immigrant community. Other than her mother’s condemnation of this idea, suggesting that it’s in poor taste to air out family secrets and in-group conflicts, viewers see this dynamic play out through the film’s homesick taxi-driving protagonist, Haile, who finds himself venting to his dentist due to a stigma against seeking help from psychologists. Viewers, alongside Haile, must navigate “hallucinations” while the untraditional structure sows seeds for multiple narratives, reflecting the many disparate realities Woldu says Eritreans operate within. She leaves audiences wondering: How grounded is your sense of reality? Is pursuit of objective reality even desirable? Is it politically advantageous? Psychologically? And as the characters, including the filmmaker, attempt to reconcile their diasporic identities, she allows them to figure it out along the way, in community.

Life is Fare screens in Winston-Salem on Friday at 5:30 p.m. at UNSCA Babcock, Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at A/perture 2 and April 8 at 1 p.m. at A/perture 1. Director Sephora Woldu will be in attendance for the Saturday screening.

— LB

You may also enjoy these Riverrun 2019 reviews:

The River and the Wall: This visually stunning documentary tracks a group of friends who travel from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico on a 1,200-mile journey to document the border and investigate the looming impacts of a wall on the natural environment.

‘Santuario’: This locally tied documentary brings the immigration debate home as it follows Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, a Guatemalan woman who sought sanctuary in an unfamiliar Greensboro church in 2017 to avoid deportation.

Find the full list of reviews here.

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