Berlinale Dispatch: A Mixed Bag From Africa, and Zoe Kravitz Keeps it Real
When I realized that German director Ulrich Köhler's Sleeping Sickness was about Germans in Africa -- strangers in a strange land, don't you know? -- my first thought was "Uh-oh." Though I know I should always be up for yet another exploration of the deep-rooted colonialist tendencies of white Europeans, I often find that the tired point-making of such movies exhausts me. (Not even Claire Denis, one of my favorite living directors, could ensnare me with her recent White Material, in which Isabelle Huppert plays a Frenchwoman who refuses to abandon her plantation in an unnamed African nation riven by racial conflict.)
But even if Sleeping Sickness, playing in competition here at the Berlinale, at first seems to be yet another meditation on how the white man can never fully understand Africa or its people (which he probably can't), it changes course midway through in a subtle and beguiling -- if not particularly exhilarating -- way. In Sleeping Sickness, Eddo Velten (Pierre Bokma), a WHO doctor who has been overseeing a sleeping-sickness program in Cameroon for years, readies himself for the end of his term: The plan is that he'll go home to Germany with his bright, attractive wife (Jenny Schily). The wife idly reflects on how much she's going to miss the place -- which is really just a shorthand way of saying that she's hardly going to miss it at all. The doctor's feelings are different, though we don't quite understand the depth of his attachment to the place until much later in the movie.
Meanwhile, Paris-born doctor Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly) is sent to evaluate Dr. Velten's program -- which uses up a hefty chunk of European funding -- and though Nzila been stationed in Africa for years, this particular assignment presents a few new challenges, starting with somewhat unsavory sleeping quarters. Worse yet, the very man he's supposed to see is mysteriously absent from the scene when he arrives. Though Nzila thinks he knows the lay of the land, it quickly becomes clear that he doesn't: He complains to a street vendor who he thinks is trying to charge him too much for cigarettes, before realizing that in the local currency, the cost is barely a few euros. Later, when he explains to a local Cameroon man that he was born in France but his parents came from the Congo, the man bristles, essentially asking him what a Congolese is doing on his turf, bossing him around.
The idea -- or, rather, just one of the ideas here -- is that even when you're black (as Dr. Nzila is), you can still be the "white" intruder. (And, in fact, the white Dr. Velten is accepted as more of an insider.) Köhler doesn't hammer his points home; instead, he lets them drift by so idly that you almost need to reach out and grab them, as if they were sticks of driftwood being carried in the current. His approach is more atmospheric than it is direct, which means the picture sometimes seems unshaped to the point of indifference. Often Köhler seems to be letting events unfold in front of the camera, rather than coaxing them into a shapely story.
But Köhler's approach works almost in spite of itself: Sleeping Sickness -- the director's third film -- has such a strong sense of place that it works a kind of feverish hypnosis. (Köhler was born in Africa, and his parents still work in a hospital there.) He makes the land look menacing and alluring at once, the kind of place you don't exactly fall in love with -- instead, it just inoculates you against the possibility of living anywhere else. Sleeping Sickness raises more questions than it even pretends to answer, which is why it appears to have frustrated many of the critics who have seen it here. (I've heard more complaints about it than praise.) But I think it can be an honest thing to treat a country like a question mark, as Köhler does. His movie is less about how readily the "wrong" people can insert themselves into a landscape than it is about the mystery of whom a particular landscape will accept.
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