The 19th New York African Film Festival: ‘Restless City’*

Towards the final scenes of Restless City, Jessye Norman’s solo soprano voice scales the great buildings and the conveyor belts of vehicles, between all of which a small red scooter navigates, carrying the slim bodies of Djibril and Trina. They are here, in this city, with all their desires clenched in their mouths. It is Norman’s voice, following the music composed by Richard Strauss to the poetry of Herman Hesse, that lifts our two immigrants’ desires up on the currents of her song, skylarks freed into the night sky.

While director Andrew Dosunmu’s story follows a storyline that might seem expected, narrating a tale about immigrants hustling the streets of the big city, a young boy with dreams of making it big on the American music scene, a pinup beauty lured into prostitution, a jolie-laide pimp/moneylender (made almost comically sophisticated by his loyalty to Mobutu hats), and a good woman who almost turns everything around with her stoic, seen-it-all stance, you’d be mistaken if you took this film to follow a well-worn cliché.

Instead of the usual narration-heavy didacticism of the morality tale, Djibril and Trini’s journeys in the city, as both attempt to make their entry, is conveyed with minimal dialogue; writer Eugene Gussenhoven is spare with his words, permitting, instead, for impressionistic scenes built on costume, light, and movement to suggest the impossibility of realising the most minor of desires, or using a small gesture with the hands to convey all of Djibril’s prayers for mobility before he sets out on his scooter, in defiance of the M1 via Madison bus chasing at his heels. When Djibril cradles the red domes of his ever-present headphones, we know that they are more than conveyors of music: they are a talisman, shielding him from the rigours of loving and living in this city.

Every immigrant remembers how the fragrance of their dreams called to them, and how our limbs trembled at the siren song.  In this city of great expectations, the song of the angel Djibril are revelations that most will find difficult to hear, interrupting the call of the city’s sirens.

“Restless City” plays Saturday, April 14, at 9.30 at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center.

* Africa is a Country will review films from the 19th New York African Film Festival (April 11-17) over the next few days. This is the first of the reviews. Also come to the two panels on “Cinema and Propaganda” which we are co-presenting with the Festival on Saturday, April 14, at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

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