Tom Tykwer has had a somewhat up-and-down career, at least according to the reviews, but what he's up to now may be that rare thing in cinema, an unqualified good. Using his own money, he's set up a scheme to train filmmakers in Africa—directors, writers, crew, actors. Projects are workshopped, then made. Soul Boy is the first feature to emerge from the scheme. Made for €80,000, shot in just thirty days, with highly trained professionals largely standing by to let the first-timers have their crack at it, this movie is sixty minutes of pure dream.
I haven't written much about African cinema (have I written anything?) because I don't know much about it, and I've struggled to get into it because I always get the feeling I'm supposed to see it as a good liberal, or to show an interest in other cultures. I do have an interest in other cultures, but that has almost nothing to do with what I watch films for. I want any film I watch to do two or three things, in no special order of preference:
1) Be a beautiful object (defining "beautiful" in as loose and sloppy a way as possible)
2) Give pleasure (defining "pleasure" with similar laxity)
3) Provoke rewarding thought (so that the experience isn't over when the film's done)
I stand by all of the above, but have to admit that failing to engage with pretty much a continent's worth of cinema cannot be defended on those grounds. There's going to be stuff there for me to love!
Happily, Soul Boy is eminently loveable, and satisfies my three big needs thoroughly. One might be favourably inclined towards it purely on charitable grounds, but the movie creates an affectionate response all its own, in synch with the first warm feeling but distinct from it, totally earned by the movie's own merits.
At sixty minutes, Soul Boy has quite a lot in common with the pre-code capers I like: it goes like an express train, takes as read our ability to quickly grasp simple, boldly-drawn characters, and boldly plunges us into an intriguing story world. Warner Bros. must have covered just about every angle of American society in the thirties, and Soul Boy seems to touch on every major concern of modern African life, with some of the same punchiness. There's a little more political correctness going on here than in, say, Employee's Entrance, but some of the same snap and sparkle gets through.
Excitingly, Billy Kahora's script mixes mythology and modernity, with no fuss and no attempt to be cute about it. Right away we're dealing with a story where the supernatural co-exists with contemporary issues like paying the rent, stealing mobile phones, working for rich white people. Fourteen-year-old boy Abila discovers that his father's soul has been stolen, and to restore it he must consult with a witch who has a cow's leg (!)—she gives him seven tasks to perform (there's only fifty minutes left by now! That's less than ten minutes a task!)—and he must be guided by the appearance of seven suns. With a ticking clock and a sense of the mysterious impinging into the workaday world, the story hares off into sub-plots and sidelines, with a coming-of-age story running in parallel with the mystic quest.
Former actress Hawa Essuman directs at speed, absorbing a lot of Tykwer's style (the IMDb lists him as co-director, the movie's credits don't), but eschewing the amusing tricksiness of Run Lola Run in favour of a clean, sharp approach in keeping with the neat plotting. Samson Odhiambo makes an earnest, appealing hero, and Leila Dayan Opou is his bright, sassy girlfriend. No sense of duty is needed to see this movie, it's as enjoyable a time as I've had with a recent film all year. If I can get into it, coming from standpoint of near-total inexperience of African film, there's got to be a wider audience who'd get the same kick out of it.