NYFF Spotlight: Sleeping Sickness
Posted by John Heavey on 9.26.2011
Why you should see it:
A haunting meditation on Africa’s past and future, director Ulrich Köhler's third feature smoothly and smartly contrasts the relationship that two doctors—one a white German who has lived in Cameroon for decades, the other a black Frenchmen taking his first trip to the continent—have with “their” Africa. Sleeping Sickness is ultimately an exploration of modern day colonialism, cross-culturalism and transnational identity. The film's rich and complex themes are epitomized by a scene in which the German doctor, speaking French, puts on Cameroonian garb made in China. In addition, Köhler's treatment of aid to Africa, specifically what happens to funding from non-government organizations, is highly topical and sure to elicit discussion. Echoing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Sleeping Sickness is a modern, seamless dual-character story with a metaphysical bend.
Sleeping Sickness played in the Berlinale, where it was nominated for a Golden Berlin Bear and won a Silver Berlin Bear for its director.
About the director:
Ulrich Köhler produced five short films before directing his feature film debut Bungalow (2002), which was shown in the Panorama section of the Berlinale and received the German Film Critics' Award and several other prizes at festivals at home and abroad. His follow-up Montag kommen die Fenster (2006) premiered in the Forum section of the Berlinale. Alongside filmmakers like Christoph Hochhäusler, Benjamin Heisenberg and Valeska Griesebach, Köhler is becoming a leader in the burgeoning “Berlin School” of filmmaking.
What the critics are saying:
David Jenkis for Time Out London: “A contemporary ‘Heart of Darkness’ it may be, but Köhler’s film also acts as a vital discussion point over the paradoxes of financial assistance, the difficulties of addressing individual problems when legislating for the masses, and the West’s distorted view of African society. Extremely impressive.”
What the NYFF programmers say:
"Sleeping Sickness is a film by Ulrich Köhler, who’s part of what they’re calling now 'The Berlin School,' a new group of German filmmakers that’s beginning to make its mark on the international circuit. It is a very interesting film about a German couple who have been living for a long time in Africa. They’re both doctors and they’ve been working there for about 20 years, but their time is up. They’re about to go back and, in a way, it’s about their preparations and their fears, especially the man’s fears of what it might be like to go back after being in this place for so long that it has really been his world. He doesn’t really know Europe anymore, he only knows this other place. Right when that story is getting going, the film suddenly switches and becomes a story about an African raised totally in France, who has actually never been on the continent before and who is coming to do a report on the clinic. It’s fascinating how the film sort of splits into two, and how each half comments on the other. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai director who had Uncle Boonmee last year in the festival, often uses a similar strategy. A very interesting film and certainly a very profound meditation about contemporary colonialism and what the sort of relationship between the 'developed' and so-called 'under-developed' world might be." —Richard Peña, Program Director