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NYFF 2011. Ulrich Köhler's "Sleeping Sickness"

"One of the year's very best films" for one; another senses a tone of "misguided superiority."

"One of this year's very best films, and one that directly addresses Europe's fraught relationship with its colonial and post-colonial relationship with Africa, was notably absent from TIFF 2011," notes Michael Sicinski at Cargo. "Ulrich Köhler's Sleeping Sickness not only focuses on two socio-politically entangled physicians — a German 'gone native' and an Congolese-Frenchman with no direct ties to the continent — involved in an African aid mission. It deals quite directly with the multiple levels of corruption and bureaucratic failure built into European NGOs and their African governance, a system of mutual exploitation and double-dealing."

"In the first half," writes Elise Nakhnikian in the L, "a German doctor, Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma), and his wife (Jenny Shily) are preparing to leave Cameroon, where they were stationed for years while he worked for Doctors Without Borders. They're going back to Germany, but they've been in Africa so long they're not sure it will still feel like home. In the second, a French aid worker dispatched by the World Health Organization travels to the village where the doctor is holed up three years later. It seems he stayed behind after all, without his wife or their grown daughter, taking on an African family and launching a program to treat sleeping sickness. The Frenchman, Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly), is there to observe and report on that program — an anemic enterprise centered in a scruffy open ward that houses more chickens than patients."

"Just as the film's first act could easily have degenerated into obvious anti-colonialist sentiment, so too are the final two-thirds ripe for even more obvious points about the first world's well meaning naïveté when confronted with third-world reality," writes Andrew Schenker in Slant. "But again, Köhler problematizes the picture sufficiently, this time through the simple device of making the Western doctor black. An urbane Parisian, Dr Nzila finds his authority as a WHO physician ignored by the locals who view him with derision as a fellow African who has no business telling them what to do, no matter how many times he tells them he was born in France." There is a "sense of dislocation that Köhler effectively channels via an increasingly dreamlike aesthetic that comes to a head in a final hunting sequence. As Drs Nzila and Velten, along with another colleague and an African guide, wend their way through the forest, the constant shots of dimly lit foliage prevent the viewer from achieving any level of comfort, mirroring the younger doctor's sense of dislocation. Gunshots ring out in the distance, while we stay with a visibly uncomfortable Alex, nestled amid the at once enveloping and menacing shrubbery. In this remarkable final sequence, Köhler offers up a despairing portrait of what foreign altruism too often amounts to: a madman shooting into the night and an impotent do-gooder left to fend for himself."

For Tony Dayoub, though, "Köhler seems to be lecturing us about the dangers of going native, a simplistic view of the issues explored reflective of the very misguided superiority he seems to be criticizing in the movie."

More from Christopher Bell (Playlist, C+) and Stephen Holden (New York Times).

Back in August, Trevor Link responded to Köhler's essay "Why I Don't Make Political Films," or rather, to a reference to the essay. Link writes of artists: "Some are simply doomed to be great, despite their mistaken attitudes that art can be wielded as a precise and pliant tool for social change. By abdicating this social role, art instead can become truly 'subversive,' as Köhler argues, and this is what makes art radical and transformative, all the more so when it refuses to do so consciously and conspicuously. The fact that art can retain its autonomy throughout history and remain unblemished in the most politicized environments is what makes it a unique human activity, and this autonomy mirrors our own experience, reaffirming that life consists of our immersion in the flux that flows throughout the 'underground of continual transmission.'"

Update, 10/9: At a certain point, "Dr Velten degenerates into little more than a caricature of an ugly white neo-colonialist, a far less fleshed-out variation on the desperate white French silk plantation owner Isabelle Huppert played in Claire Denis's thematically similar White Material," finds Kenji Fujishima at the House Next Door. "And when Köhler finds nothing else left to discover about Dr Velten in his current near-mad state, Köhler takes another left turn into full-blown surrealism, finally ending on a risible note that hearkens back to a bedtime story told by Vera to her daughter much earlier in the film. The sudden attempt at poetry only serves to underline the skin-deep nature of Köhler's economic analysis."

Update, 10/11: "Köhler knows this material well, having spent his boyhood in Zaire as the child of European relief workers," writes Genevieve Yue in Reverse Shot. Referring to the essay Link mentions, she notes that Köhler "urges artists to think beyond matters of political content to the politics of image production itself, from funding sources to eventual audiences, and to interrogate cinema's presumed ideological neutrality as something already imbricated in a pervasive system of power and injustice. Such a pointed Adornian critique is less easy to detect in Sleeping Sickness, which overtly addresses political subject matter, though it does so in a way that becomes, over time, increasingly unstable."

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