Film & Television

‘Farewell Amor’: An Immigrant Family of Strangers’ Story

According to Pew Research, there are 45 million foreign-born individuals in the United States. They represent 14% of the U.S. population, 17% of the U.S. labor force, and about 20% of the world’s total immigrants. About two-thirds of Americans say immigrants strengthen the country “because of their hard work and talents,” while about a quarter say immigrants burden the country by taking jobs, housing, and health care. 

While immigration policy is debated across aisles, it’s important to remember that each person and every family that comes to America has its own story of desperation, courage, persistence, or love. It was one of these stories that inspired Ekwa Msangi to write and direct her finely tuned and deeply moving new film Farewell Amor.

“It’s inspired by the relationship of an aunt and uncle of mine who were married in the mid-’90s. “I was one of the flower girls,” Msangi recently told NPR. “My uncle got a student visa to come to the U.S. and came with every intention of bringing my aunt and my cousin right behind him. And they’ve been caught in an endless cycle of visa applications and rejections since then. And so I wanted to write the ‘what if’ story. What would happen if this mountain that they’ve been climbing forever was suddenly removed?”

Farewell Amor begins at New York’s JFK airport. Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is waiting for the arrival of his wife, Esther, (Zainab Jah) and teenaged daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson). They’ve been apart for 17 years, since Sylvia was a baby. In fact, other than phone calls, she doesn’t know her father at all. Esther and Walter soon realize that they’ve become strangers over time as well.

The family is originally from Angola, where civil war forced them into exile. Walter came to the U.S., while Esther and Sylvia fled to Tanzania with plans to join him. However, as in Msangi’s own family, visa complications as well as finances have delayed that reunion. 

Msangi explains, “A lot of Americans don’t realize what it takes for non-American people to come into this country, aside from buying a plane ticket. So a lot of people assume that it was just, ‘I couldn’t afford the plane ticket.’ But it’s way more than that. You know, visa issues are a huge thing. And it’s not just for Africans. I got a lot of people who were able to share stories with me about their cleaning lady, their babysitter, the guy at the bodega, the — you know, whoever it was. I was really surprised to hear how many versions of the separation story there were, and not just due to immigration either. You know, there’s people in military service. There are people in incarceration. And so, you know, it’s really just a story about longing and being separated from the people that you love and what that changes people to be like, what that changes you into.”


In New York, Walter drives a cab, working double and triple shifts to pay for a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. He’s assimilated over time, making friends, drinking and dancing at local clubs, learning to cook healthy alternatives to help his cholesterol, and building a new relationship with a nurse. It’s with some regret that he asks the nurse to leave just before his family finally arrives.

In Tanzania, Esther has found support from a Christian community. If Walter has become more secular, she has become more devout. Her spiritual advisor has urged her to restore her marriage in “flesh and spirit.” But Walter needs to take things more slowly.

“Maybe we should plan some things as a family so we could get to know each other,” he suggests.

Esther is elated: “I’ve just been praying about this.” When he suggests a drive on Sunday, she’s insists that they go to church instead. 

Sylvia stays connected to her friends through texts, social media, and music. She’s a fairly compliant teen, but a teen nonetheless and an especially resilient one. To her mother’s horror, she wants to dance and auditions for her high school’s step team without much success. But a new friend, DJ (Marcus Scribner), helps persuade her to enter a dance competition. At one point, Esther walks in on Sylvia and DJ, who are merely sitting on a couch together, kicks him out, and forces her to pray for forgiveness. 

Although Esther’s unwavering faith victimizes her (a call back to “a sister” in Tanzania results in her sending all of her savings to the church), she also has strength and comports herself with a sort of nobility. A neighbor, Nzingha (Joie Lee), calls her “Queen,” and gives her advice on where to buy millet flour and how to dress to win back her man. “Sometimes a king needs his queen to remind him who she is.” 

After a painfully awkward start and several days of skirting familial issues, Farewell Amor reaches a crescendo when Esther realizes that Walter’s been involved with someone else. The happy ending she has dreamt of (and prayed for) has eluded them, and they finally understand that they must build a new foundation, together.

Farewell Amor is a fairly quiet film (despite the unaccustomed noise of New York and Sylvia’s pounding techno music). Much of the action is internal and much of that internal action takes place in Walter’s near-claustrophobic apartment. Although he’s hung a sheet in the living room for Sylvia, there is virtually no privacy for the three characters who desperately need space to figure out where they are and where they’re going. Fortunately, Msangi’s cast (and her direction of them) is s tremendous. Jah’s Esther is pious without once falling into caricature. Mwine’s Walter is kind and respectful, carefully hiding his broken heart. And, Lawson’s Sylvia is just magnetic. I would predict great things in the lovely young Juilliard graduate’s future, but she’s already been cast in The Batman 2021 as Bella Reál, Gotham City mayoral candidate.

An important reason why each character comes so fully to life is that Msangi has organized the film into three fairly equal parts. The story of the family and their first few days back together is told through Walter’s eyes, then again through Esther’s, and finally through Sylvia’s. The tryptichal approach gives each actor a chance to portray multiple perspectives of their role, and encourages us to think differently about what we’ve seen and the assumptions we’ve made. Their individual experiences are human and sometimes heartbreaking.

Msangi, who grew up in Kenya but has lived in the U.S. more than half her life, is committed to telling stories like this one. As she recently told Shondaland, “I can’t talk about it quite yet, but I do have another project that I’m working on. It’s a period piece and it takes place here in the U.S. and looks at the lives of African American people, which is very exciting for me. I haven’t had the honor of portraying those lives yet in cinema, but it’s a very important aspect of my heritage. I have spent more than half of my life in the U.S. and appreciating U.S. history and specifically the history of African American people. I’m very excited to join the tribe of people who are already out there doing this work.”

They say, “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and there may be truth to that. But, it’s also true that people are constantly changing and evolving. How wonderful, if unlikely, that two changed people might remain in love — or slowly rediscover it – after 17 years.

We’ll wish the best for Esther and Walter. Sylvia is going to be all right. 

Farewell Amor was an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It earned Best Feature Film from the American Independent Awards, and additional prizes at the Durban International Film Festival, the Hamptons International Film Festival, Philadelphia Film Festival 2020, and San Diego International Film Festival. Although it’s currently in very limited theatrical release, like so many titles, Farewell Amor is available to rent from Amazon Prime.


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