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There have been a lot of road movies, particularly ones made by Western directors, about migrants from the developing world traveling huge distances in search of a better life, spanning the globe from North America-set El Norte (1983) and Sin Nombre (2009), to the trans-Pacific The Beautiful Country (2004), to the Afghanistan-to-Calais journey of In This World (2002). Hope, French writer-director Boris Lojkine‘s first fiction film after two documentaries set in Vietnam (Ceux qui restent and Les Ames errantes), is one of the few African-centric stories to trace a similar journey of desperation across the Sahara to Europe. But while there’s much to admire here in this scrupulously well-researched account of a Nigerian woman (Endurance Newton) and a Cameroonian man (Justin Wang) who partner up en route to Spain, the narrative trajectory that takes them from poverty to danger to doomed optimism and finally tragedy is a well-worn path.
Festivals and rep houses, especially ones spotlighting the newest juicy crop of new work from Africa, will offer Hope ports to berth in. But play beyond the film’s nation-of-production France and other countries with large populations of African immigrants will be harder won.
On a flatbed truck trudging across the Saharan desert, title character Hope (Newton) and Leonard (Wang) have whatever is the polar opposite of a meet cute when Hope is singled out by the mostly male Cameroonian fellow travelers for being a woman and, even worse, a Nigerian and is soon raped by soldiers. When everyone gets off at the final stop, only Leonard has the decency to stay back and help a devastated and exhausted Hope walk the last 20 kilometers to the nearest Algerian town.
A guide encountered along the way helps them find the mini ghettos on the edge of town — there’s one for Cameroonians and one for Nigerians — that they should report to for shelter, just one of the many fascinating details that bespeaks the level of in-depth study Lojkine must have put in for the script. But Hope insists on staying with Leonard instead of joining her countrymen, and he ends up being forced to accept her as his wife in an extra-legal ceremony presided over by the local “chairman” (Dieudonne Bertrand Balo’o). Somewhat spitefully but with a touch of grim practicality, Leonard auctions off his first night in bed with Hope to the highest bidder, thus launching them both into new careers as pimp and prostitute, respectively.
Some first-world viewers may feel shocked by how Hope not only complacently accepts the need to sell her body but eventually falls in requited love with Leonard. In fairness, he seems just as genuinely concerned with protecting her as he is with raising cash to secure their escape. Moreover, in a world where rape and sexual enslavement are shockingly quotidian, at least prostitution offers Hope some degree of control and agency over her own predicament.
Once the two become a couple, there’s some balm to be found in their tender, tentative rapport. But soon the full irony of the title becomes all too obvious as they get closer to Europe. (The lead actress’ given name, Endurance, might have proved a more apt moniker for the movie.) Even so, Lojkine’s documentarian eye for the textures and details of the lives of these dispossessed people is convincing throughout. He draws unself-conscious, robust performances from his entirely nonprofessional cast, especially the two naturally stately leads. (Some actors, such as Henri Didier Njikam, who plays a passport forger, and Bobby Igiebor as the Nigerian chairman, are basically playing versions of themselves on screen.)
Elin Kirschfink‘s thoughtfully composed cinematography is frequently ravishing, if arguably in danger of prettifying the poverty at times.
Production companies: A Zadig Films presentation
Cast: Justin Wang, Endurance Newton, Dieudonne Bertrand Balo’o, Bobby Igiebor, Richmond Ndiri Kouassi, Nabyl Fally Koivogui, Henri Didier Njikam, Martial Eric Italien
Director: Boris Lojkine
Screenwriter: Boris Lojkine
Producer: Bruno Nahon
Director of Photography: Elin Kirschfink
Editor: Gilles Volta
Composer (or Music): David Bryant
Sales: Pyramide International
No rating, 92 minutes
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