Sleeping Sickness


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Sleeping Sickness
"A lurching and uneven film, Sleeping Sickness resembles a dream."

Cameroon's history of contact with the outside world has not been a pretty one. Missionaries first arrived there in the early 16th century, bringing hitherto unknown diseases. 200 years later Middle Easterners began to enslave the people of the north, and 80 years after that the Germans arrived, ostensibly to civilise, imposing a system of forced labour. The French and the English who inherited the country from them treated it little better. This is the dark heart of Africa that Conrad spoke of, a place so brutalised that international relations are still fraught today.

Today, Cameroon is still ravaged by disease and its dependency on foreign aid and expertise keeps it bound in an uneasy relationship with Europe. One European trying to make things better there is Dr Velten (Pierre Bokma), a man who has fought several epidemics and is now struggling against the eponymous sleeping sickness. His wife and daughter want him to leave, to go back with them to Germany. That's love, his colleagues laugh. But could Dr Velten's love of Cameroon be more powerful? Has something there infected his soul?

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Some time after witnessing Dr Velten's turmoil, we meet Dr Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly). He's working in a clinic in Europe; he's frustrated by the meaninglessness of what he does, the pettiness of office gossip. So he agrees to go on a trip, Willard-style, to find Velten and figure out what's happening to the project he was supposed to be administering. What he finds is a man who has adapted to a strained situation that he comes to understand dangerously late.

A lurching and uneven film, Sleeping Sickness resembles a dream. It's dominated by the lush jungle landscape, often shot in darkness with only pools of torchlight to guide the way. When it's impossible to see more than a few metres in any direction, even in the clearings, danger could be lurking anywhere. There are also social dangers which the naive Dr Nziba could easily stumble into despite his caution. And there's a sense of spiritual danger, of overwhelming guilt and need and anger, that gradually builds throughout, to a delirious ending.

Itself single-minded and ambitious, this is a film that takes on so many complex issues it can never hope to provide resolution, but that's part of the point. Kohler's film suggests that Cameroon is not a place for heroes; whilst there might be solutions, they are not for any single man to deliver. Perhaps the folly of Velten and his ilk is not so different from that of the missionaries who went before him. On such a grand stage, he can only be human, and human nature is exposed for all to see.

Reviewed on: 11 Feb 2012
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Absorbing and boldly original drama revolving around a German doctor in present-day Cameroon.

Director: Ulrich Kohler

Writer: Ulrich Kohler

Starring: Pierre Bokma, Jean-Christophe Folly, Jenny Schilly, Hippolyte Girardot

Year: 2011

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: Germany, France, Netherlands

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