Black Out: LAFF Review

An eye-opening doc that reflects the day-to-day realities of privation through the unexpectedly bright prism of youthful resolve.

Eva Weber’s brief, poetic glimpse at Guinea encapsulates the hopeful striving of an impoverished nation’s youth.

The nonfiction film Black Out opens with scenes of a nighttime airport and shifts to close-ups of teenagers reading aloud from their textbooks. How the two seemingly disparate elements are connected is the revelatory essence of Eva Weber’s portrait of the West African nation of Guinea. Her succinct documentary, which is receiving its North American premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, would be a strong programming selection for highbrow small-screen outlets.

German-born, London-based director Weber filmed in Guinea’s capital city, Conakry, over several months of 2011, between the election of Alpha Conde -- the country’s first democratically elected president -- and an attempted coup. But though Weber refers to national political upheavals, she aims her lens at a more intimate subject: the schoolchildren who are determined to better their lives and build a society that benefits all Guineans, not just its rulers.

Months after the election, campaign promises remain just that, with crippling infrastructure problems yet to be addressed. Most homes have no electricity, and as teen students prepare for the exams that will determine whether they continue their educations -- their only hope of securing decent, potentially life-changing jobs -- they flock to public places where the lights stay on all night, so that they might study into the wee hours. G'bessia International Airport has become the chief all-night library for the kids, with gas stations also filling the need for a well-lighted place.

The upper-middle-class American obsession with landing “the right school” looks more absurd than ever in comparison to the very basic struggles of these dauntless young people, none of them complaining. Rather than standard talking-head interviews, Weber pairs the students' voiceover comments (in French, Guinea’s official language) with cinematographer Mattias Nyberg’s expressive imagery, which moves seamlessly between the straightforward and the poetic.

Beyond the responsibility the kids feel toward their parents, whose opportunities have been limited by illiteracy and circumstances beyond their control, they reveal an astute understanding of the larger picture. “You see trains transporting equipment,” one boy notes, going on to explain that corrupt and lazy officials have done nothing to improve living conditions while foreign companies continue to exploit the nation’s natural resources.

Weber also speaks with a Conakry teacher, who acknowledges that his dream of becoming a “respected intellectual” is a dream deferred. But though teaching wasn’t his first choice, he recognizes the dignity of his profession. And he sees before him, in the sleep-deprived children who are determined to lift their families out of poverty, Guinea’s “quest for light.”

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (International Showcase)

Production: A co-production of ASI London, Animal Monday and Odd Girl Out Prods., with the support of UNICEF/Guinea, in association with Rooftops Films and Chicken & Egg Pictures and Technicolor Post Production

Director: Eva Weber

Producers: Claire Neate James, Kat Mansoor

Executive producer: Nicola Doring

Director of photography: Mattias Nyberg

Music: Florencia di Concilio

Editors: Emiliano Battista, Eva Weber

No MPAA rating, 47 min.