Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 30, 2011 12:41 pm 
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Up river

The German director Ulrich Köhler's third film, Schlafkrankheit in the original, is about Africa, where he lived happily as a boy, by his own account, when his parents were European medical relief personel in the Congo. His film is in two parts, which don't mesh particularly well. The first part is about a Dutch-born doctor, Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma), who's been in Cameroon too long and says goodbye to his German wife (Jenny Schily) and teenage daughter (Maria Elise Miller), but can't bring himself to leave. The Mr. Kurtz analogy would be excessive: the locals seem quite tame, for one thing -- but Velten has become one of those culturally split personalities who can't quite fit in in either world, this one or the one he left a long time ago. The second half comes three years later when Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly), a young French doctor of Congolese descent who's lived all his life in Paris, arrives on his first assignment from WHO to do an assessment of Velten's local program to eradicate sleeping sickness. Good performances, believable incidents, and totally authentic locales don't make this come together as a well-made film. It becomes increasingly unfulfilling as it progresses. The writing and editing are at fault here, but Sleeping Sickness won a festival slot (and even a Silver Bear award at the Berlinale for Köhler's direction) through its interesting and lived-in subject matter and atmosphere.

Velten loves his German wife, but an unappetizing bed scene shows their sex life may have died out. Yet when Gaspard (Hippolyte Girardot) suggests he join up for some play with pretty young African women, he declines. That has changed when the screen goes black and the narrative resumes, three years later, focused on Dr. Nzila and France. Velten's interest in African women has developed now, three years later, when Dr. Nzila arrives in Cameroon to do the WHO evaluation. Things are rough for Nzila: even getting from the airport is a huge hassle. By now, it turns out, Velten has a young African wife about to have a baby. Velten is off somewhere, his underlings covering for him as Nzila frantically waits. Nzila is even called on to perform a Cesarian section, which he has never done and doesn't even have the stomach for. And then he gets sick. Nzila goes through a series of scenes that are vivid images of a westerner plunged into a primitive setting and far out of his depth. He's also treated differently because he's black, dumped off at a hovel in the dark of night when he first arrives.

When Velten finally shows up several days later, treating the ill Nzila and performing the cesarian, which turns out to be on his wife, it also gradually becomes clear that sleeping sickness has been so nearly eradicated through Velten's good offices that the program and funding aren't needed. We've already seen in the first part of the film that Velten acknowledges this but local bureaucrats want more funding, not less. Velten isn't really needed either, most likely. He's trained the locals, and done himself out of a job. But of course he has no life elsewhere. What is Nzila to do?

That question is never really answered. Köhler takes Gaspard, Velten, and Nzila hunting by night along a river, and we get a whiff of a Heart of Darkness situation as Nzila becomes terrified and is separated from the other men. The film's ending is open-ended, which is fine, except that the contrast between Velten and Nzila, who are obviously polar opposites of the colonial spectrum, is never developed in an interesting or revealing way. Velten has a certain sleazy charisma. But it's the first shocking days of Nzila's mission that leave the most vivid impressions. In his final moment, after a night alone, he comes to the river's edge dazed and is pushed into a long rowboat. Gaspard and Velten are nowhere to be seen, and as the boat slips away a large, menacing hippo appears. It's a memorable moment -- this film has a few -- but a completely ambiguous one.

It's hard not to compare this with Claire Denis's White Material, also a treatment of Europeans in Africa whose time has run out. Though Denis isn't at her best in that film, it certainly develops the whole colonial-African context far more clearly and richly. Köhler's specific local details are very convincing, more intimate and real in an everyday sense than Denis', but he doesn't do enough with them. Denis' Africa may be more mythological and generalized, but it's also more resonant.

Sleeping Sickness debuted at Berlin in February 2011, and was released in Germany, the Netherlands and Poland in June, July and August, respectively. It was chosen to be part of the New York Film Festival in October, and it was screened there for this review.

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