Sunday 8 October 2023

LFF 2023: The Taste of Mango

Chloe Abrahams' striking debut feature The Taste of Mango plays tomorrow as part of this year's BFI London Film Festival, where it screens in competition for the Grierson Award.  Abrahams' film comes up against a strong field of documentaries, which includes Leandro Koch and Paloma Schachmann's The Klezmer Project, Cyril Aris' Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano, and Sav Rodgers' Chasing Chasing Amy.  Yet the film in the documentary competition that The Taste of Mango has most in common with is Lina Soualem's Bye Bye Tiberias: both films are highly personal explorations of their makers' respective relationships with their mothers (in Soualem's case, her mum is famous Palestinian actor Hiam Abbass, who has appeared in the likes of Munich, Blade Runner 2049, Miral and last year's Hellraiser remake).

Abrahams was raised in the UK by her mother Rozana, who moved to England from her native Sri Lanka in order to escape a very specific problem.  While the film's focus is very much on the loving relationship that exists between the director and her mother, Chloe Abrahams widens her scope to involve another generation of her family, who are represented by her grandmother (and Rozana's mother) Jean.  It is through Jean's inclusion that The Taste of Mango takes its darkest turn, as it is revealed that her husband subjected Rozana, his stepdaughter, to years of physical and sexual violence, thus prompting Rozana to leave Sri Lanka when the opportunity arose.  In the years that followed, Rozana, quite understandably, became estranged from her mother, and she still can't fathom why Jean—who is fully aware of the abuse that occurred—remains married to this man.

While Rozana's relationship with Jean has since thawed to the extent that the latter can now visit her daughter and granddaughter in London, it's abundantly clear that much remains unresolved.  On camera, Jean herself comes across as both personable and affable—but it is hard to reconcile this person with the one who has consciously stayed with a man who inflicted such horrors on the young Rozana.  Although several decades have passed, Rozana hasn't completely given up on the possibility that her mother might one day leave her husband; Jean's persistence with the marriage can largely be attributed to that most banal of reasons: the need to maintain appearances.  Rozana is a luminous, wonderfully gracious presence, and both the love and life she's given to Chloe stand in stark contrast to her own terrible experiences back in Sri Lanka.     

Despite the closeness that exists between Chloe and Rozana, The Taste of Mango is also about distance, specifically the silent gap that lies between children and their parents; while the reason for the rupture in Jean and Rozana's relationship is obvious, there's the subtler example of Chloe's frustration as to why her mother won't do more when it comes to addressing the demons of the past.  Then there's the series of tangible gaps we witness early on in the film, as one of Rozana's family albums is littered with empty spaces created by the numerous photos that have been torn to omit her abuser; our eyes are instinctively drawn to the redacted areas.  While the absence of Rozana's stepfather from these pictures serves to highlight his unfortunate impact on her life, this photo album can conversely be viewed as symbolic of the survivor's life today, in which there's only room for the good things.  This is a moving, lyrical and haunting film; don't bet against it walking away with the Grierson Award. 

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI