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TORONTO — The last time director Gabriel Range came to the Toronto International Film Festival, it was for the premiere of “The Death of the President,” a highly controversial drama hypothesizing the assassination of George W. Bush.
He’s back this year with another inflammatory film, although the quietly powerful “I Am Slave” feels like less of a calculated attention-grabber than its predecessor.
The British production is an often harrowing, present-day account of a young Sudanese woman who was sold into slavery and ended up “working” in London as a domestic for an Arab family, unpaid and held as a virtual prisoner behind the gates of their upscale home.
Graced by a heart-wrenching lead performance from Wunmi Mosaku and a spare, intimate screenplay by “The Last King of Scotland” co-writer Jeremy Brock, the strikingly shot picture leaves a lasting impression despite its 80-minute running time.
Inspired by actual events, “I Am Slave” begins in the Nuba Mountains in the south of Sudan, where Malia (played as a child by Natalie Mghoi) is doted upon by her father (Isaach de Bankole), a respected traditional wrestler.
But during a Muharaleen raid, she’s snatched away by militants and sold into slavery, held under lock and key by a cruel matron (Hiam Abbass) living in Khartoum.
She remains there until she turns 18, when she’s subsequently shipped off to the woman’s cousin (Lubna Azabal) in London.
Stripped of her passport and virtually robbed of a personal identity save for her first name, Malia suffers in silence until it becomes clear that if she doesn’t soon find some way to escape, an already hopeless situation could end tragically.
With its economy of dialogue, the film relies on the unspoken pain and fierce determination in Mosaku’s eyes to more than capably fill in those empty spaces.
Given his previous, divisive film, Range’s subtle touch here comes as a welcome surprise, and he steers the story along in some unexpectedly gripping directions.
The production is further enriched by cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s striking compositions, often bathing his lead character in shafts of shadow and light suggesting the hint of possibility still lurking in all the encroaching darkness.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Content Film)
Production companies: Slate Films, Altered Image
Cast: Wunmi Mosaku, Isaach de Bankole, Lubna Azabal
Director: Gabriel Range
Screenwriter: Jeremy Brock
Executive producer: Gail Egan
Producer: Andrea Calderwood
Director of photography: Robbie Ryan
Production designer: Cristina Casali
Music: Molly Nyman & Harry Escott
Costume designer: Phoebe De Gaye
Editor: Brand Thumim
Not Rated, 80 minutes
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