Europe’s engagement with the developing world, the South, the so-called Third World, has powered some of its most compelling recent films. Within that, there’s a particular strain brewing that explores Germany’s bond with Africa. From the grand historical drama of Nowhere in Africa to the contemporary moral precision of Sleeping Sickness and At Ellen’s Age, German filmmakers appear to be working out complex national dilemmas by facing the vast continent below them. Now comes Jan Zabeil’s The River Used to Be a Man.
On a still waterway, a white man (Alexander Fehling) lounges in a dugout canoe. Using a long pole, an old African man steers the European through the watery landscape, willing to fulfill his passenger’s fantasy of losing himself in Africa, but only at a price. In what appear to be innocent questions, he cuts to the core of the traveller’s crisis: the European is an actor, in a place where being an actor means nothing.
Then suddenly the old man is gone. Zabeil uses this turning point to pitch the actor deeper into his existential fog. Choosing not to leave for home, but entirely adrift in a rural area governed by ancient tradition, he attempts to do the right thing. He finds the old man’s son and tries to help bring the body home. He tries to find a place in the village’s rituals. He tries to fathom what he witnesses. But the narrative here is only a gesture towards the full meaning of the film. Zabeil draws tone and atmosphere to the fore, lingering on the actor’s rootlessness, his inability to comprehend and his wobbling orbit around the certainties of the place in which he finds himself.
The river used to be a man: it’s a simple, declarative statement that is logically impossible but also, in this particular patch of rural Africa, deeply meaningful. This is the dilemma that Zabeil holds in tension throughout the film: what can divination, memory and traditional belief mean to a man so far outside them? –TIFF