UK/Tanzania (2017) Dir. Leanne Welham

The term “First world problems” is thrown about a lot as an ironic admission of our inherent comfort compared others living under less fortunate circumstances. Yet, how much do we know the struggles in third world countries, where even the smallest things we take for granted are out of reach for many?

With her husband leaving her with two young children, Pili (Bello Rashid) works the fields in rural Tanzania for just $1 dollar a day, but not only struggles to feed herself and her kids but she also needs medication for being HIV positive. Because of the stigma of this disease, Pili keeps it secret from everyone else, bar one close confidant Cecilia (Sesilia Florian Kilimila).

One day, Pili gets a call from market manager Mahera (Nkwabi Elias Ng’angasamala) offering her a highly sought after kiosk at the market but demands a deposit of 25,000 shillings in the next 48 hours. Pili tries everything to get the money but faces resistance and numerous unfortunate obstacles at every turn, whilst her health is failing her after running out of her medication and not being able to afford any more.

British director Leanne Welham has recently made her name helming episodes of popular TV dramas but this East African set social-realist tale is her feature film debut, a world away from His Dark Materials. Co-written by Sophie Harman, Pili was filmed in Tanzania with a cast of non-professional actors and real locations, including genuine AIDS clinics used for the hospital scenes.

Predictably stark yet never melancholic or depressing, Welham keeps the visuals a bright as possible through the vivid colours of the cast’s attire and from most scenes being in the daytime. This creates a unique contrast to the gloom of the constant vicissitudes Pili must weather to get the money to by the kiosk and realise her dream of running a stall to give her children a better future.

It’s a tale of determination, mental and physical survival and sacrifice whilst the African setting mirrors similar hoops one has to jump through on this side of world to succeed. Just because Pili’s world is bucolic and almost untouched by modern technology – they do have old Nokia style mobile phones – doesn’t mean that there is no equivalent of red tape and other bureaucratic nonsense to contend with.

First a bit of world building to introduce our protagonist and her two kids, Ibrahim (Hardi & Faridi Yusufu) and her baby daughter (Latifa Samil), in their tiny shack where the only source of entertainment is a tiny wind up radio. Ibrahim finds Pili’s pills and decides he is going to be a doctor so he can cure his mother, which only spurs her desire to make a better future for them.

Showing herself to be astute at work, Pili spots her boss trying to short change another worker on her pay, hinting at a possible reason why Mahera offered Pili the kiosk before anyone else. Pili selflessly puts aside the need for her HIV medication, which ran out a while ago, to put towards the deposit. Pili turns to the Vikoba (women’s committee) for a loan but is rejected because she doesn’t have the right paperwork and even in this tiny impoverished village, rule are rules.

Eventually, after pleading and with her mate Cecilia onside, the loan is approved but Pili must wait a week for it; she explains she needs it now which leads to another row. The next morning Pili collapses at work and is forced to go to hospital out of town when her usual chemist ups the price of her medication which she can’t afford. Despite being a huge step up in terms of facilities and equipment, there is still a waiting list before Pili can be seen by a doctor, and time is running out on the deadline for her money.

Reading all of this might make it sound like Pili is a farcical comedy where our hero must overcome a litany of hurdles and mishaps as she races against the clock with her luck on the verge of running out. The fact is, we all have had days like this and none of the situations Pili faces are contrived in any way – they are very real and very recognisable, from unhelpful receptionists to buses breaking down.  

Delve into the subtext and Welham is showing us calamity, misfortune, and bureaucracy are universal frustrations that don’t discriminate against race, geography, or gender. But the focus is more on highlighting the indomitable spirit of the modern African woman, finding strength within to carry on despite being burdened with a terrible illness when perhaps she is taking one risk too many.

To Pili it is worth it, having been let down by her deserting husband upon learning of her HIV diagnosis which is she is forced to be silent about or face being a pariah. You might want to equate this to being a feminist parable, the elements are all there, although Pili faces judgement and barriers from both sexes, but women needing men does appear not to be an issue in this instance – well, not strictly but to say more is a spoiler.    

Using non-professional actors is always a risk but with the right director and the efforts of said cast, her results can be sublime. This is no different, as Bello Rashid carries the film like a seasoned veteran, yet her raw, untainted naturalness – and this is true of all the cast – is vital in how real this all feels. And Welham doesn’t over egg her direction to dilute or compromise this lack of artifice, nor does the pristine imagery courtesy of Craig Dean Devine’s evocative camerawork.

At 83-minutes, Pili doesn’t outstay its welcome but even in this succinct form it makes the audience think about how resilience in the face of adversity is not the province of movie action heroes but real life people anywhere in the world.

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