Shado'man: IDFA Review

Shado'man Film Still - H 2013
Pieter Van Huystee Film
Glimpses into tough lives in an African capital offer steely lessons of darkness.

Shot and edited by director Boris Gerrets, this Dutch/French documentary on nocturnal street life in Freetown, Sierra Leone, competes for the main prize at the Amsterdam festival.

Darkness becomes visible in Boris Gerrets' absorbingly downbeat Shado'man, shot entirely after nightfall on the tough, squalid streets of Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown. At once stylish and gritty, this is a solid, serious and promisingly distinctive feature-length debut from the Dutch director, who as his own cinematographer and casts effective illumination on the hard-scrabble lives of homeless men afflicted by various kinds of physical disability. Debuting in competition at IDFA, the impressionistic results will appeal to programmers of the more adventurous festivals and those specializing in human-rights issues.

Some 13 years after Marc Singer's influential Dark Days took viewers into the hidden lives of a literally "underground" New York community, Gerrets now immerses us in an environment even more extreme, hazardous and disorienting. Eschewing captions and commentary, he instead plunges us directly into the mega-urban dystopia of this noisy, dirty metropolis -- rain-soaked zones where the most disadvantaged members of society congregate and help each other through another night.

It's essentially a loose ensemble chronicle, with the focus shifting between perhaps half a dozen principal protagonists including the blind best friends Lama and David. Gerrets adopts a fly-on-the-wall approach to tactfully eavesdrop on conversations, which give voice to resentments about "the suffering of life on the streets. You never get a chance to sleep quietly."

Taking place under pitch-black, starless skies which show neither vestiges of dusk nor presages of dawn, scenes are illuminated either by the low-powered streetlights sometimes augmented beams fixed to Gerrets' cameras, yielding effects reminiscent of the dream-states in Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But the business here is reality in all its quotidian grind, and Gerrets conveys the sheer repetitive tedium of these men and women's existence with a dogged persistence that occasionally veers towards the monotonous.

Necessarily tough viewing at times, and vital as a window into the dire circumstances endured by countless under-reported and voiceless millions around the world, Shado'man works best as an unvarnished exercise in unflinching reportage. Gerrets, best known for 2010's mid-length, cellphone-shot People I Could Have Been and Maybe Am, can't resist the trap of underlining the poignancy of his subjects' situation with moments of tinklingly tragic piano, and scenes playing out to the incessant night-town symphony of traffic, insect-whirr and barking stray dogs resonate better when left unadorned.
Venue: International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Production companies: Pieter van Huystee Film, Les Films d'Ici
Director/Screenwriter/Editor/Director of photography: Boris Gerrets
Producer: Pieter van Huystee
Music: Hans Otte, Oleg Karavaychuk, Mohamed Lama Jalloh
Sales: Pieter van Huystee, Amsterdam
No MPAA rating, 86 minutes