His House. 2020.
Directed & Written by Remi Weekes from a story by Felicity Evans.
Starring Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku, Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba, Matt Smith, & Javier Botet.
Regency Enterprizes / BBC Films / New Regency Productions
TV-14 / 93 minutes
Drama / Horror / Thriller
The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS!
I recently read an interview with director-writer Remi Weekes about his feature film debut, His House. In the interview, Weekes expresses the hope that his film will create new conversation surrounding immigration, and I, for one, am sure it’ll do just that. Any astute genre film lover knows horror has long been, since the inception of the Gothic, a vehicle for social and political issues in society. The idea of social horror cinema has long existed—such as Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973), or Larry Cohen’s The Stuff (1985)—it’s only recently been given a name, particularly since Jordan Peele’s Get Out was able to bring Black issues to the forefront of a historically white-dominated genre. His House is as socially horrific as it gets, looking into the world of South Sudanese refugees landing in the U.K., where they’re haunted by their past and the journey to escape it.
Bol and Rial Majur (Sope Dirisu & Wunmi Mosaku) have managed to flee war-torn South Sudan. They seek asylum in the U.K. and after a stint in a detention centre they’re given a rundown house in an English town where they can live a simple life. Fitting in isn’t as easy as they’d pictured, neither is it easy dealing with the strange sounds at night around their house or the witch Rial believes followed them from Sudan. Bol refuses to accept his wife’s supernatural worries. The longer he refuses the truth, the more dangerous it becomes for them in their new haunted home.
What affected me most about His House is that while Bol and Rial’s past, specifically his guilt associated with it, is the story’s main focus, a relatively large theme Weekes addresses is the horror of assimilation. We see Bol and Rial become divided over their own culture, and how their division causes them more suffering. Past guilt is a Gothic spectre haunting Bol and Rial’s lives, symbolised by the film’s ghost(s). What’s unique is how Weekes uses the Gothic to explore contemporary immigration issues, which makes for a memorable story, and shows how rich the horror genre can be when we make sure stories from all cultures make it to the screen.
Many white people don’t understand the microaggressions incurred simply by being non-white among whites, and, in turn, just cannot grasp how those microaggressions can amount to something much greater, much more destructive. In one scene, Matt Smith’s character relates losing a job to Bol’s struggle as a Sudanese refugee. It’s white privilege on display, a momentary microaggression, followed up with Bol being made to feel he’s making problems for “not adapting” when he’s actually only asking for better, more humane living conditions. Bol’s so terrified of being sent back to Sudan he becomes increasingly forceful with Rial over controlling her expressions of their African culture.
The Panopticon of whiteness is always hovering in Bol’s mind, forcing him into surveillance of his own behaviour and that of his wife. We see this subtly at first when Bol urges Rial to use a fork, rather than eat with her hands, hoping if they assimilate themselves at home then they won’t appear Other in public. He refuses to talk in Dinka, telling Rial to speak English. At one point, Bol looks to capitalism and whiteness to craft his and Rial’s appearance, buying the exact same clothes from an ad in the mall depicting a typical white British family in the belief this will help them appear ‘normal’ to English eyes. The most interesting moment, and central to the narrative, is how Bol rejects his culture’s myths while his wife believes in and embraces their African spirituality. When Bol finally realises the error of his ways, embracing the truth Rial already knows, the couple manages to liberate themselves from the Gothic past, and somewhat from the restrictive shackles of whiteness.
Many white people likewise can’t comprehend how within a single race there are deeper divisions; for instance, in Black communities people experience colourism, and women can often face misogynoir. We see this kind of division in the film when Rial goes out on her own in town for the first time and runs into a trio of young Black British boys. She tries talking to them, only to be insulted and told: “Go back to Africa.” These British-born Black kids see themselves as above Black Africans, mainly because Rial can’t speak English without a thick African accent. Rial’s rejected by both whiteness and Blackness, unable to find community on either side. This helps illustrate the way refugees/asylum seekers occupy a liminal identity. In this sense, they, too, are Gothic figures like the ghost, caught between two worlds—home and elsewhere—never quite fully part of one or the other, mired in cultural limbo. Rial’s understood liminality her entire life, even at home in Sudan where she marked herself with the symbols of both tribes in her region as a method of survival. “I survived by belonging nowhere,” she explains to a nurse. Though the real ghost of His House is Rial and Bol’s daughter, Nya (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba). The Gothic return of Nya, attacking Bol and maliciously haunting the house, is as much about revenge for him purposefully rejecting his own culture to appease whiteness as it is vengeance for Bol’s guilt over the past.
“We are not going back”
His House is essentially about horrors of the past returning in the present, but Weekes joins contemporary refugee struggles with the Gothic to offer fresh perspective on a familiar tale. It’s the appearance of a cultural myth from Sudan that turns this Gothic story into something new. Javier Botet, a genuine horror icon over the past decade and a half, plays the apeth, referred to as a witch; the word ‘apeth’ can be translated into English as ‘witch’ or ‘witchcraft’ itself. This Sudanese witch acts as a spiritual form of guilt and revenge, clinging to Bol, Rial, and their new English home as a symbol of the Gothic memories from their past which they cannot let go.
The witch serves another purpose, magnifying the existential terror of Bol forgetting himself. Bol rejects his culture to assimilate with white British culture, in a sense becoming a ghost of himself. Similarly, he refuses to acknowledge Nya and her identity, going so far as to burn everything they brought with them from Sudan, including the necklace Rial made out of the girl’s clothes, Gothic artefacts of their past. He generally seems to refuse acknowledgement of any other people who made the journey from Sudan and died along the way, resulting in the witch conjuring various ghosts as a form of punishment for his active forgetfulness. The only way Bol is able to protect himself and Rial appropriately is to accept his mistakes, to acknowledge the ghosts haunting him rather than hope they’ll stay secluded in the house’s walls. The ghosts are symbolic of Bol’s guilt and when we see those last shots of the house full of other refugees, it’s a portrait of the present now co-existing alongside the mistakes in Bol’s Gothic past without any further painful disruption.
While Sope Dirisu’s character is a major focus in the story, and he gives an impressive performance, Wunmi Mosaku is the most stunning performer of the film. Mosaku’s already done great work this year, seen in an exciting role on Lovecraft Country. His House solidifies her as someone who needs to be headlining more projects. Together, Dirisu and Mosaku capture all the story’s Gothic terror so well. They feel authentic and bring their characters to genuine life, expressing so many dimensions of the refugee experience in the U.K. that we rarely get to see addressed onscreen, at least with such raw honesty. The film’s overall very important for genre film making in 2020, as well as cultural representation in fiction.
His House uses its Gothic horrors to illustrate the unfortunate, immense (mental/physical) strength required of refugees by a white world that, more often than not, refuses their humanity. Weekes refuses to shy away from the difficult questions, looking at just one of many ways oppression can make people do questionable things—like what Bol chose to do in order to get him and Rial out of South Sudan—to secure their freedom. A major problem with the way white people view Black issues is how many whites want to see the ‘perfect Black victim’ when it comes to stories of refugees, police brutality, and so on. Fiction like His House urges white viewers not to place our sympathy towards POC in a hierarchy based upon whether an individual passes our purity test of whiteness.
The narrative of the film isn’t attempting to let Bol off without consequence. For him and Rial to be able to live in that house un-tormented by the ghosts, he must first “let them in” and begin facing the guilt he feels for his own actions. What Weekes does is employ Gothic horror as a way of reconciling with the past. Rather than have the ghosts win in the end by destroying Bol, along with Rial—or having Bol and Rial vanquish the ghosts—the refugee couple learns to co-exist with the ghosts. Because, as Bol comes to understand, the ghosts which constitute our past are forever part of us; we can either learn to live with them, or we can let them consume us.