Ulrich Köhler’s latest drama Sleeping Sickness (2011) is a difficult and tiresome film that leaves a sour taste of lethargy and disappointment in the mouth. Set in Cameroon, it focuses on Dr. Velten (Pierre Bokma), who for the past five years has been managing a sleeping sickness programme. His wife and child return to Germany, yet Velten gives into the temptation to stay. Three years pass and Congolese-Parisian Dr. Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly) joins Velten, only to discover the epidemic is under control and the funds could be used better elsewhere.
The issues of the film provide plenty of potential interest – namely, how aid funds are distributed and the levels of corruption apparent in Africa. Many of the characters are representative of central concepts and themes; Velten the disillusioned doctor; Gaspard (Hippolyte Girardot) the corrupt westerner out to exploit Africa; and Nzila, the naive doctor filled with good intent.
The potential is there for a gripping tale, but Köhler’s drama is anything but gripping. The characters are extremely flat, making it impossible to feel any sense of investment in their feelings or actions. Whether their performances are good or bad is irrelevant, because there is just nothing there for them to work with.
Whilst no doubt critics will lunge for the political themes weaved into the dialogue, debating ideas such as ‘trade not aid’, yet Sleeping Sickness is ultimately wearisome. Köhler grew up in Africa and was inspired to make this film after a recent visit, and whilst the portrayal of the corruption and difficulties faced by aid workers is accurate and shot with skill, it lacks momentum to keep the audience gripped.
There is an obvious nod to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that redeems it slightly, along with the idea that organizations like W.H.O are actually breeding corruption in Africa allowing the privileged (predominately white) to become richer in a pseudo colonial way. Yet Köhler spoils this with his simplistic use of contrast, in a vague attempt to show what is true and what is false. Sleeping Sickness is ultimately a dull film hiding under the pretence of arthouse cinema.
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