After the teenage Chloe gives birth, she returns to her home town to move back in with her disapproving mother. Soon afterwards, she begins glimpsing a ghostly entity that she becomes convinced is intent on harming her baby, and when her claims are dismissed by her mother and psychiatrist her very sanity comes under threat.
When unleashed upon cinemas in its native South Africa, Siembamba (aka The Lullaby) caused such an outcry it was swiftly yanked from the screens. Upon watching it, it’s not too hard to understand the reaction. A film that features murdered babies in its opening scene in the concentration camps of the Boer War, and follows a young mother who runs the risk of harming her own infant due to her encroaching madness, is going to have a tricky time finding an audience that won’t immediately dismiss it.
The film is named for an apparently real lullaby where the mother sweetly sings about brutally murdering her helpless child, and such a dissonance sets the tone for a film where a firm grip on what’s going on remains forever just beyond the grasp of viewer and characters alike.
Although primarily a supernatural chiller, the heavy themes are such that the supernatural element of the story is almost surplus to requirements, the horrors more thoroughly dealt with being those of motherhood rather than ghosts, and also touching upon sexual assault and mental illness.
While the haunting apparition is certainly compellingly sinister enough, in terms of ghost action the film doesn’t really offer much more than any B-class J-horror from fifteen years ago. Thankfully, the periodic jump scares aren’t overdone, and far more unease comes from the pervasive tension as Chloe’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and unpredictable.
Chloe’s deteriorating sanity goes unnoticed by her mother, who believes her mental state is a reaction to her being too young and immature for motherhood, and is far more interested in doling out sanctimonious recriminations than ensuring her daughter’s psychological wellbeing. Since almost the entire story is told from Chloe’s perspective, when it becomes apparent that she can’t differentiate between what’s actually happening in reality and what is the result of her fevered hallucinations, there’s no reason the audience should presume that they can. It gets to the point that as well as proving the entity real to keep her baby safe, she also needs it to be real to prove her sanity to those around her, as well as herself.
Deeply, deeply unsettling due to its content matter, as a study of the extremes of mental illness Siembamba is suitably unnerving, but as a ghost story it’s all a little too familiar.
SIEMBAMBA /CERTIFICATE: TBA / DIRECTOR: DARRELL ROODT / SCREENPLAY: TARRYN-TANILLE PRINSLOO / STARRING: REINE SWART, THANDI PUREN, BRANDON AURET, DEANRE REINERS / RELEASE DATE: TBA