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“Unseen” Review: Travis Taute’s Crime Thriller is an Attempted Exploration of the Life of a Working-Class Woman

“Unseen” Review: Travis Taute’s Crime Thriller is an Attempted Exploration of the Life of a Working-Class Woman

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“…these women, though they are always in the lives of their employees, are unseen. They are unknown, and their existence holds no special thought for their employers…”

By Seyi Lasisi

My introduction to Gail Mabalanle was in the young adult crime thriller, Blood and Water. The 2020-2021 South African Netflix series had Mabalanle, whose child was missing, playing the lead role. Though playing an important role in Blood and Water, the real star of the series is Ama Qamata, the teenager who occasionally turned investigator seeking for her lost sister. In Mabalanle’s recent outing, she is the centre of attention. There are barely any scenes, through the six episodes of the series, where Mabalanle’s pain-suffused face isn’t featured. Cinephiles familiar with Blood and Water might gradually be seeing the connection Unseen has with Blood and Water. In Unseen, Mabalanle plays the role of Zenzi, a cleaner with a missing husband. The admirable actor, Mabalanle, seems to have a habit of losing people dear to her existence. The loss of the people in her life always forms the basis for the actions she takes. And these people who get missing in unclear situations propel the series forward.

 

Unseen is a cloned version of the Turkish Netflix series, Fatma. And like an adapted version, adapted by Travis Taute and Daryne Joshua, Unseen bears the same identity as Fatma: the lead characters and the conflict are similar. Unseen‘s similarity to the eponymously-titled Fatma is hard to miss. The dialogues, save a few tweaks, are similar. The chronological progression of the scenes is similar. Fatma and Zenzi’s facial expressions alternate between a battered-down-with-grieve countenance to short-lived smiles. However, the minute difference which exists between both series is geographical: one is set in a conservative Turkish city, and the other is set in South Africa. Unlike Fatma, Unseen paid less attention to the background story of its lead characters. This inattention to the background stories makes the series clumsy, leaving too many questions unanswered.

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Unseen follows the life of Zenzi, a cleaner, who anticipates the return of Max (Vuyo Dabula), her imprisoned husband. The Travis Taute’s directed and executive produced series beginning point is at the police station. And it’s funny how for a series with a cleaner as its lead, most of its scenes are situated around police premises. Not in the kitchen, toilets, or living room as you would have expected with Zenzi cleaning. A question which is posed at Zenzi, in the opening scene, led the series into flashbacks. Through the flashbacks, which often compete with the present story, we became introduced to a list of people who hold importance to Zenzi’s life: Max, Esulu (Omhle Tshabalala), Mr. Ngesi (Mothuso Magano), Raymond (Brendon Daniels), and Naledi (Dineo Langa). Beyond the emotional attachment of Zenzi to these people, the series’ essence and conflict also revolve around these people. Max Mwale is in business with the leaders of a syndicate. Mr. Ngesi, a widowed author, is one of Zenzi’s employers, and there seems to be an unspoken but budding romance between them. Naledi, Zenzi’s sister, has distanced herself from Zenzi’s tragedy-inducing life. Raymond occupies the role of the middleman between Zenzi and the syndicate Max works for.

Months before seeing Unseen, I had seen two films that shared similar traits with it. One was a Netflix series, Maid, starring Margaret Qualley. The second film was Jua Kali, a short film that I saw at the indie-focused S16 film festival. In Maid, Qualley played the role of an ambitious woman trying to build order around her life after leaving an abusive relationship. For Qualley, cleaning jobs became one of her anchors in the turbulence. In Jua Kali, the short spotlights the lives of maids who clean dredges and debris and make the lives of their employees filled with ease. As presented in Jua Kali, Maid, and Unseen, these women, though they are always in the lives of their employees, are unseen. They are unknown, and their existence holds no special thought for their employers.

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Who is Zenzi? Invisible and unseen are the adjectives the series and some of its notable cast (Raymond and Mr. Ngesi) used in describing her. For the rich and comfortable people she works for, she is undeserving of their attention. This situation changes when Raymond discovers that Zenzi being “invisible” is of great advantage for his underground crime jobs. And Mr. Ngesi also has an epiphany that makes him interested in writing a story about the obscured lives of cleaners in contemporary society. The series hints twice at answering the question of who Zenzi is. In the first instance, she guesses correctly that a daughter commits patricide. In the second instance, in the emphatic embrace of Max’s arm, captured by Zenn Van Zyl, a discussion on how to balance pursuing her education while pregnant is raised. In both instances, which are overtly short-lived and uneventful, the series just teases at who she is. Zenzi’s life aptly fits the series title. For the creator of the series, Zenzi’s earlier history prior to meeting Max is undeserving of attention. She is truly unseen.

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The series, as visually pleasing as it is to watch, has several dangling and unresolved issues. In minute details, the unresolved questions are gradually answered through flashbacks that occasionally filter into the present story. The flashbacks are important to the series for two reasons: they are rife with information that untangles the knotted plot. They are also Zenzi’s go-to places for comfort and respite. However, when some of the important questions of the series get answered, through the flashbacks, it fails, in my personal observation, to elicit charged emotional responses. The revelation of why Max became a hermit seems far-fetched. Truthfully, Zenzi is lonely, with no friend or family to turn to. Her attachment to Max despite the numerous hints of his being abusive is confusing. The failure of the adapted series written by Travis Taute and Daryne Joshua to provide sufficient background stories makes the series convoluted.

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Once again, series like Unseen proves that the terror unleashed on women under the guise of masculinity isn’t solely an African problem. The oppression of women cuts across different borders and continents of the world. While Rosa’s landlord in Eyimofe wears the countenance of a Good Samaritan with a hidden motive, Enrico (Abduragman Adams), doesn’t have the patience to mask his real intention of wanting to be intimate with Zenzi. In a patriarchy-controlled world, working-class women will continually bear the burden of masculine projections. And additionally, Max’s unlawful imprisonment and eventual death point to the assertion that in a capitalist world, justice for the working class people is an illusion. Justice is the birthright of the elite.

 

Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian student with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how it aligns with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex.

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