The River Used to Be a Man: Film Review

Dream-like fable of a European adrift in Africa never quite manages to flow.

Alexander Fehling stars in German writer-director Jan Zabeil's story about a white man lost in the Botswana marshlands, a film that was a prize-winner at the San Sebastian Festival.

SAN SEBASTIAN — There can't have been many movies in history to recoup 90% of their budget in one swoop, but that's what happened when the $136,000 German production The River Used To Be A Man won the $122,000 Kutxa New Directors Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Not with standing the presence of rising German star Alexander Fehling, whose lead turn as Young Goethe In Love this year earned him a Lola, that sum will likely far exceed box-office returns either at home or abroad for this slowly-paced, existential fable set in a scenic, under-populated corner of Botswana.

Indeed, Fehling is alone on-screen for much of the running time, but doesn't quite have the charisma to prevent this moderately promising debut from director Jan Zabeil from drifting into the muddy waters of ennui. It's destined to be a popular choice for festivals keen to challenge audience expectations of narrative and character development.

Reportedly made without a script — the director and actor share a writing credit — the intriguingly titled The River Used to be a Man has a loosely observational, semi-documentary feel in its first half, as a nameless, thirtyish German actor (Fehling, presumably playing a variation on himself) explores the rivers and marshlands of Botswana in company with a considerably older local guide (Sariqo Sakega).

Their conversations, in English, are intermittent and slightly awkward because of the language barrier, but the amount of dialogue in the movie reduces significantly when the guide suddenly dies during the night, and our hapless protagonist must find his way back to civilization, solo.

This softly spoken, blond European proves ill-equipped to get himself out of trouble. Though miraculously untroubled by hunger, he mopes his way into an existential crisis, and only accidentally stumbling onto an inhabited village. But his problems may be just beginning at this point, as one of the first persons he meets turns out to be none other than the dead man's son (Obusentswe Deamar Manyma).

This lad isn't exactly pleased to hear about his pop's demise — or that the bungling German has managed to mislay the body during his anguished peregrinations. While reliant on a highly unlikely coincidence, our map-less, phone-less hero's meeting with the son does at least inject a bit of tension and drama into what has previously been a work of excessively steady, reflective rumination.

At certain points in the second half, the film is reminiscent of Walter Hill's Louisiana-bayou thriller Southern Comfort (1981), a blunt but effective metaphor for America's involvement in Vietnam. Zabeil’s approach is much more poetic, impressionistic and gnomic, making this a valid companion-piece to Alistair Banks Griffin's Faulkner-inflected Stateside equivalent, Two Gates of Sleep, which also deals with the arduous, water-borne transportation of a cadaver.

That said, the picture's longueurs do allow the viewer plenty of time to ponder the story's allegorical and symbolic readings regarding Europeans' historical and current relationships with Africa. Subtitling is kept to a bare minimum so when local languages are spoken, we're as much in the dark as  our blundering surrogate, stuck in a nightmare of stasis, threat and disorientation.

The downside is to make the Africans seem strange, perhaps even hostile and threatening, in a film which always sees this area and its inhabitants through its protagonist's naive eyes.

Indeed when in the closing moments Zabeil makes it seem like his hero’s canoe has drifted over a waterfall, many may feel that he's receiving just desserts for his callow fecklessness although an enigmatic coda allows for multiple interpretations of everything that we've seen and heard up to this point.

Sensibly eschewing musical score, Zabeil relies instead on sound editors Anton Feist and Magnus Pflüger to summon up the particular ambience of the locations, the ever-present insect chattering occasionally reaching cacophonous proportions.

Given the paucity of dialogue, and Fehling's less-than-absorbing characterization, extra burden is placed on the cinematography by Jakub Bejnarowicz, whose digital cameras capture some transcendent moments, especially at night and at dusk, when humans, river, vegetation and sky are illuminated in a water color symphony of suffuse shadings.

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival
Production companies: Rohfilm
Cast: Alexander Fehling, Sariqo Sakega, Obusentswe Deamar Manyma, Nx'apa Motswai, Babotsa Sax'twee
Director: Jan Zabeil
Screenwriters: Jan Zabeil, Alexander Fehling
Producers: Benny Drechsel, Karsten Stöter, Jan Zabeil
Director of photography: Jakub Bejnarowicz
Editor: Florian Miosge
Sales: Rohfilm, Berlin
No rating, 84 minutes