MPAA Rating: TV-14
USCCB Rating: NR
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 reels
(Disclaimer: The following review contains spoilers.)
There is no greater trauma in this world than the death of a child. The hardest I’ve ever cried in my life was following my wife’s miscarriage. Add to that the harrowing experience of fleeing a war-torn country to a land that barely tolerates your existence, and you might have a little idea of the situation in which Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rai (Wunmi Mosaku) find themselves. No wonder demons are attracted to them: misery loves company.
In the first scene of His House, Bol has a nightmare about crossing the Mediterranean Sea with his wife Rai and their daughter Nyagak (Malaika Abigaba) after escaping the South Sudanese Civil War. The boat capsizes, and he screams as his child floats away and drowns. Suddenly, he wakes up in a tiny room. “What were you dreaming about?” asks Rai. “Our wedding day,” Bol lies. “That explains the screaming,” Rai smirks. This small moment tells the audience everything about the couple’s situation: desperate but still loving. The tiny room turns out to be a British detention facility where refugees await their status. Soon, they are given temporary asylum while the government reviews their citizenship application. The couple are given a dilapidated condo, a small weekly stipend, and strict instructions regarding their behavior.
Bol and Rai are grateful, but their good fortune is short-lived. While removing the wallpaper one day, Bol hears voices behind the paint. At night, he sees grotesque figures lurking in corners. He starts making holes in the wall to discover the source of the whispers only to see faces appear and disappear through the gaps. Bol is convinced that these images are products of his mind, a crude attempt by his brain to process his experience. However, his wife believes these are real entities that must be taken seriously. Either way, it poses a threat to their fragile immigrant status.
Like the demons just behind the drywall, there is a secret sin festering beneath Bol and Rai’s pleasant exterior. Right from the beginning, there is a sense that everything is not what it seems. In the film’s last act, it is revealed that Nyagak was not their real daughter. Rather, Bol stole her at random from a crowd (and her hysterical mother), then passed her off as his child to gain sympathy and access to the buses leaving the war zone. Rai is horrified but goes along with the ruse, telling the traumatized child “we will protect you.”
Rai is convinced that this act invited an apet, a demonic entity, into their lives. The apeth not only followed them to Britain but brought the dead souls of the shipwreck with it, including Nyagak. It will only leave if they “repay what they owe.” At first, Bol believes this means his death but, at the last moment, Rai kills the demon. When teased by the British authorities at the end of the film, she says they have “learned to live with the ghosts.” Bol and Rai conquer the demon by admitting their sin, but it does not mean they had to submit to its destruction. A Western audience could see this film and easily interpret the demons and ghosts as metaphorical manifestations of their guilt. This is true, but an African audience would understand that the spiritual world is very real, and the demon was not only a figment of their imagination.
Besides the theme of crime and punishment, the most obvious narrative underpinning is the refugee experience. Whether an immigrant is from poor central Africa or wealthy central Germany, he carries the weight of his ancestors with them, both those who survived and those who perished. Bol and Rai must fight the demons of their past and the prejudices of the present. Yet, the film ends on a hopeful note. Bol patches up the holes in wall, showing that even though everyone bears scars, there is always a chance to rebuild.
One irksome element, however, is the film’s treatment of the British social workers. From start to finish, many native people go out of their way to help refugees. They give them a house and a stipend. A local church brings them food and cleaning supplies. Despite this, the director Remi Weekes apparently feels the constant need to put the British down. The family’s caseworker complains that their house “is bigger than his.” Government officials will not listen to them. Neighbors stare at them ominously through their windows. Weekes can’t deny the aid of the West but often dismisses the British as uncaring or even racist, no matter how untruthful. Refugees have benefited from the kindness of the West for generations, and I myself am a perfect example.
It is a great sadness of life that horror begets horror. The Sudanese War caused Bol and Rai to flee. Their desperation led to kidnapping. The kidnapping led to death. The death invited demons. The first step to breaking this cycle is taking responsibility for our sin. The second, which the film does not show, is asking forgiveness. We are all refugees from Eden, and it is only through the blood of Christ that we escape the Devil and find our true home.
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