There are some films/filmmakers who revel in their weirdness. Audiences going into watch the new David Lynch readily expect an explosion of surrealism. A sinister midget? Cross country lawnmowers? Oh David, you do spoil us. But then again, there are those peculiar films which lull you into a false sense of security, then BAM! A hippopotamus walks across the screen. Yes, you heard me.
Which leads me into Sleeping Sickness, upcoming German director Ulrich Kohler’s Cameroonian set film. The film starts off fairly dryly, with our introduction to doctor Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma), who is working in a remote hospital dealing with ‘sleeping sickness’. Sleeping sickness manifests itself with bouts of insomnia and fatigue, causing the sufferer severe disorientation. The film structurally tries to reflect this condition, in its elliptic editing and humid visuals.
Velten and his family are about to return back to Germany, after a long stint in Africa, and one critic has described the film as a representation of the displacement felt by moving between the continents. Personally, I felt it difficult to assign a particular message or theme to the film, such is its surreal, subtle allure. Halfway through the film, without warning, the focus shifts onto a young French-Congolese doctor named Nzila (Jean- Christophe Folly), who is embarking on a similar mission to Velten. He meets Velten there, and sees that the white doctor has become a shell of his former self.
I mentioned David Lynch earlier, and there are some parallels to be drawn with the disorientating structure and fluid, interchanging characters. Yet Sleeping Sickness is perhaps more unsettling because it often feels like a conventional observational drama akin to Claire Denis, then sidesteps you with a moment of absurdism. I can’t say I thought Sleeping Sickness was a great film, because it was slightly unsatisfying in its elusiveness. But this is also why it stays with you after the credits roll.