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'Farewell Amor': How Long Can A Family Stay Apart And Remain A Family?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

How long can a family stay apart and remain a family? That's a question at the heart of the quietly powerful new movie "Farewell Amor." It's the story of an Angolan family reunited in New York City after 17 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FAREWELL AMOR")

ZAINAB JAH: (As Esther) Amor, here you are.

NTARE GUMA MBAHO MWINE: (As Walter) Look at this. Look at this.

KELLY: The husband-dad came first, built a life in America, driving a taxi. Visa issues kept his wife and daughter in Africa. When I spoke with director Ekwa Msangi the other day, I asked her to describe her three central characters - a family, but strangers.

EKWA MSANGI: We start with Walter, who is the father. He, as you mentioned, has been here for the past 17 years. You know, as the years went on, he was living life as best as he could and found himself in a new relationship. And so at the top of the movie, when his family shows up, he has had to break off his extramarital relationship in order to make space for his family. And he is trying to, you know, be the responsible and dutiful husband and father that he has always wanted to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FAREWELL AMOR")

MWINE: (As Walter) Maybe we should plan some things as a family so we could get to know each other.

JAH: (As Esther) I've just been praying about this.

MSANGI: So she's Esther. Over the years, she has developed a relationship with God as her way of remaining hopeful and has become a different person than what he knew.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FAREWELL AMOR")

JAH: (As Esther) We thank you for your endless blessings and love. We thank you for our home and our family. We thank you because the devil is shamed and defeated.

MSANGI: And the daughter is Sylvia. Her father left when she was five, six months old. And so she's only known about him through legend, some phone calls, some letters. But she doesn't have a relationship with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FAREWELL AMOR")

MWINE: (As Walter) How was school today?

JAYME LAWSON: (As Sylvia) Fine.

JAH: (As Esther) Is that how you respond?

LAWSON: (As Sylvia) It was fine. Thank you.

KELLY: They're in this small apartment in Brooklyn. You shoot a lot of the film there. And they - you know, they try to hang sheets in one corner of the living room and put Sylvia's bed there to carve out a tiny, little private space for her. But there is not much privacy. And I wondered whether you were setting up a contrast there - that you can be right on top of the people you live with and still feel incredibly isolated and lonely.

MSANGI: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, this longing that they've had for all of their lives of being together - if only we're together, everything will be fine. And then they finally are together, and it's much harder than they seem. And they're also much further away from each other than expected. So is it about the physical distance or lack thereof that makes the family, that makes the relationship, or is there more that's required for us to actually feel close and connected to each other is kind of the question that I'm asking there.

KELLY: The film was inspired by a true story from your life. Would you share it?

MSANGI: Yeah, it's inspired by the relationship of an aunt and uncle of mine who were married in the mid-'90s. I was one of the flower girls. My uncle got a student visa to come to the U.S. and came with every intention of bringing my aunt and my cousin right behind him. And they've been caught in an endless cycle of visa applications and rejections since then. And so I wanted to write the what if story. What would happen if this mountain that they've been climbing forever was suddenly removed?

KELLY: I want to talk about dance. Walter, the dad, loves to dance. The daughter has some great dance scenes. What is it about dancing that allows your characters to communicate even when they're struggling to do so with words?

MSANGI: Yeah. I mean, dance is so spiritual for me. I'm a social dancer, and I have been for many, many years. And for me, it's definitely a point of power and point of release and a point of really being able to sort of be myself in a way that I'm not able to on a regular basis. And I experienced that as a young person coming back to the States as a teenager and trying to find myself and my space. You know, so that was something I could relate to for Sylvia's character.

But, you know, I think for all African heritage people in particular, dance just holds so much meaning. You know, it's a way that we relate to culture. There's DNA that is passed down in sort of what parts of your body move to what kinds of instruments and, you know, what we respond to and messages and - you know, that are carried in music and movement that I find it very difficult to make stories about African heritage people without including dance and music.

KELLY: Well, I loved the scene where you sent the mom and dad out for a nice dinner. And they're in the middle of eating, and there's a little bit of music in the background. And he says, let's dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FAREWELL AMOR")

MWINE: (As Walter) Join me.

JAH: (As Esther) You are embarrassing yourself.

MWINE: (As Walter) Then come rescue me. We'll be embarrassed together.

KELLY: You see the chemistry. These two still - they can connect on the dance floor in ways that they weren't able to otherwise.

MSANGI: Yeah. I mean, the dance style that Walter practices, kizomba and also semba - unlike other couples' dances, they don't have a regular foot pattern. And so in order to dance to kizomba, there is a certain level of connection you have to have with your partner in order to know which way they want you to go.

And so I just thought it was such an interesting metaphor for this - for a relationship and for this couple that used to be partners. They used to be in sync, and now they're not. And therefore, they can't dance, but they want to. And so that particular scene that you're talking about is, like, the little moment where they're - she's making a baby step in that direction to try and remember, you know, muscle memory of what - where they used to be and where they left off.

KELLY: It felt as though you were also wanting to push us to realize this is way more common than a lot of Americans think about. It felt to me like you're challenging us to look at the people all around us and really see them and the complexity of their lives.

MSANGI: Absolutely. A lot of Americans don't realize what it takes for non-American people to come into this country, aside from buying a plane ticket. So a lot of people assume that it was just, I couldn't afford the plane ticket. But it's way more than that. You know, visa issues are a huge thing. And it's not just for Africans.

I got a lot of people who were able to share stories with me about their cleaning lady, their babysitter, the guy at the bodega, the - you know, whoever it was. I was really surprised to hear how many versions of the separation story there were, and not just due to immigration either. You know, there's people in military service. There are people in incarceration. And so, you know, it's really just a story about longing and being separated from the people that you love and what that changes people to be like, what that changes you into.

KELLY: Well, it is beautiful. Thank you for coming and telling us about it.

MSANGI: Thank you so much for having me. It's such a pleasure.

KELLY: That is the director Ekwa Msangi. Her movie is "Farewell Amor," out Friday in theaters and on demand.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEGGY GOU SONG, "STARRY NIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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