Diego Star: Rotterdam Review

Rotterdam Diego Star - H 2013

Rotterdam Diego Star - H 2013

Refreshingly unpredictable and urgently topical tale of exploitation and resistance maintains Quebecois cinema's hot streak.

The refreshingly unpredictable and urgently topical tale of exploitation and resistance maintains Quebecois cinema's hot streak.

It may be named after a rusty old bucket of a barely-seaworthy ship, but admirable social-realist drama Diego Star proves a more than watertight cinematic conveyance. World-premiering at Rotterdam in the Bright Future sidebar dedicated to first- and second-time film-makers, it introduces 37-year-old Frederick Pelletier as yet another notable writer/director talent from Quebec in the wake of Denis Villeneuve, Denis Cote and Xavier Dolan

Indeed, this admirably unsentimental tale of a veteran African sailor who pays the price for taking a stand should surely have been competing for a Tiger award in Rotterdam's 'main' section. The Canadian/Belgian co-production looks a safe bet to enjoy more bookings than the vast majority of the 16 pictures that actually were selected, as Pelletier manages to deliver his unambiguously pro-worker message in accessible, humanistic fashion that will strike topical chords with programmers and audiences far and wide.

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It helps that he's cast such a sympathetic duo in the two main roles of Traore, a seaman mechanic from Ivory Coast in West Africa, with more than 18 years' experience on the high seas under his belt; and Fanny, a twenty-something single mother struggling to make ends meet in her remote hometown on the St. Lawrence Seaway. 

Burkina Faso-born Issaka Sawadogo amply confirms the strong impression he made in Nicolas Provost's The Invader (2011), finding plenty of nuance in the physically imposing, stoically dignified Traore. The considerably younger and less-experienced Chloe Bourgeois underplays effectively as Fanny, an intelligent but frustrated woman evidently struggling to make the transition to responsible adulthood.

The mechanism deployed to bring Traore and Fanny together is a touch contrived -- his ship breaks down during a visit to the port where Fanny works, and the sailors are billeted with local people while the insurers investigate what went wrong and why. His colleagues keep their heads down and their mouths shut, but Traore's exasperation boils over to the extent that he blows the whistle on the ship's mismanagement, suffering ostracism and worse as a consequence. 

Pelletier's screenplay nimbly subverts expectations -- it's especially refreshing, for example, that he avoids the temptation to concoct any kind of romantic attraction between Traore and Fanny. Their unusual relationship is handled with a maturity and sensitivity that renders it complex, intriguing and ultimately moving.

Likewise Traore's struggle for justice and fairness doesn't follow the time-honored Norma Rae arc, instead ringing true as a depiction of how such resistance is often dealt with in today's world of ongoing economic crisis. This ensures that Diego Star, while convincing in its evocation of specific details, has much wider parallels and applications than simply being an expose of shipping companies' nefarious business practices. "Worse things happen at sea," the saying goes -- but perhaps not anymore.

Venue: Rotterdam Film Festival (Bright Future), January 29, 2013.

Production companies: Man's Films, Metafilms
Cast: Issaka Sawadogo, Chloe Bourgeois, Yassine Fadel, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Nicole-Sylvie Lagarde, Marie-Claude Guerin
Director / Screenwriter: Frederick Pelletier
Producers: Sylvain Corbeil, Pascal Bascaron, Nancy Grant, Marion Haensel
Director of photography: Philippe Roy
Production designer: Marjorie Rheaume

Costume designer: Patricia McNeil
Editor: Marie-Helene Dozo

Sales agent: FiGa Films, Los Angeles
No MPAA rating, 91 minutes