by Tony Dayoub
On paper, the premise for Sleeping Sickness is intriguing. The first half of the film is largely seen through the eyes of Dr. Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma), a white German whose 20-year tenure treating a sleeping sickness "epidemic" in Cameroon is over. While his wife (Jenny Schily) has mixed emotions about returning home, Velten's feelings are best exemplified by the awkward relationship between him and their teenage daughter (Maria Elise Miller), whose time away at boarding school has sharpened her sarcasm to the point that they can cut through any pretense that Velten might conjure regarding his relationship to her or his mother country. Velten has simply become more African than European after his time spent there, mired in the continent's intricate customs and practices.
So what better way to contrast Velten than by introducing Dr. Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly), a black Congolese World Health Organization (WHO) worker, born and raised in France. Summoned by Velten 3 years after he should have left with his wife and daughter (the span of time between the film's first and second halves), Nzila comes to Cameroon to review the status of the epidemic. Its victims once numbered near a hundred per day and have now dwindled to less than a handful. The second act of the film explores Nzila's alienation from the land of his ancestors. The surrogate for the viewer shifts from being Velten to Nzila, the better to understand the discomforting alienation the country seems to project onto its visitors. From a misunderstanding around the question of just who is going to pick Nzila up at the airport to the paranoia the defensive French doctor begins to exhibit at a marketplace when he thinks a vendor is trying to overcharge him for cigarettes, it becomes clear that the naive Nzila is less sure-footed in Africa than the aggressive Velten is. Except, is he really?
As director Ulrich Köhler depicts it, Velten has fallen victim to a kind of sleeping sickness himself, trapped by the jungle's tendrils snaking around his limbs. Velten has a pregnant mistress he doesn't particularly love. His bleary eyes betray the fact that he either can't sleep, drinks often or is so wired on adrenaline or some other drug that his mind may implode under the pressure. It becomes clear fairly quickly that Velten called for Nzila in the hopes that the WHO worker would shut down Velten's funding and recall him back to Europe. Unable to stop treading water on his own, Velten is looking for a life preserver of some kind to help pull him out.
As intriguing as this all sounds, familiarity breeds contempt, and watching this at the New York Film Festival immediately brought to mind another film I'd seen here two years ago, the far superior White Material. It covered much of the same ground, exploring a fictional African country on the verge of revolution through the eyes of both an African revolutionary leader (Isaach De Bankolé) and a white neo-colonialist (Isabelle Huppert) who had made the country her home. But White Material's director, Claire Denis, who lived in Africa as a girl, brought a ring of truth to her film which seems lacking in Sleeping Sickness. While Denis seemed to approach her subject as more of a bewildered observer, the tone here is one of pontificating, as if 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.
Köhler doesn't even manage to follow-through on the questions he raises. Instead, midway through Sleeping Sickness, Köhler telegraphs his ending by introducing a mystical non-sequitur in a legend Velten recounts. Unable to propose any satisfactory responses, Köhler turns his back on the foundation of verisimilitude upon which he's built his film to employ the most absurd supernatural escape hatch you'll ever see on film — a hippopotamus — squandering much of the viewer identification he earned early on.
Sleeping Sickness is playing at the 49th New York Film Festival at 3:30 pm Saturday, October 8th, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023, and 9:15 p.m. Wdnesday, October 12th, at the Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street (between Broadway and Amsterdam), upper level, New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 721-6500.