To be a citizen of France

The Story of Souleymane follows an immigrant through two days in Paris, leading up to his asylum interview with authorities.
A scene from Boris Lojkine’s award winning film 'The Story of Souleymane'.
A scene from Boris Lojkine’s award winning film 'The Story of Souleymane'.

If cinema is about shining a light on the many contradictions facing the world, then Boris Lojkine’s award winning film 'The Story of Souleymane' brings us face to face with contemporary global strife—of enforced human exodus and exigencies of seeking asylum in an alien land.

Lojkine focuses on the universal phenomenon through the individual experience of its lead Souleymane Sangare (Abou Sangare).

The film follows him through two days in Paris, leading up to his asylum interview with authorities.

A West African, Souleymane has had to relocate out of economic necessity to earn not just for himself but also to help build a comfortable life for his ailing mother back home. It is much later in the film that it gets revealed to us how dangerous the passage to France has been for him, with torture and abuse on the way through Mali, Libya and Algeria.

Documentary style

The film switches effortlessly between the fiction and documentary aesthetic, largely following the verite style of filmmaking, documenting the minutest of gloomy details of a poor immigrant’s life as he goes about cycling through the city, working illegally as a courier boy, delivering parcels and food, has a run-in with cops.

On top of it all, he must also struggle to find a night shelter to sleep in, in the cold nights, and has a heart-aching breakup over the phone with his sweetheart back at home coaxing her to marry the engineer who has proposed to her. He cannot promise her a good life like him, at least not in the immediate future.

So why keep things on hold for her? It is the most beautiful moment in the film, shattering in its boundless sadness even as it reveals Souleymane’s depth of selflessness and sensitivity. The handheld camera follows him closely all the way as he runs against time.

A heartfelt and spontaneous performance by the non-professional actor Abou Sangare, who is a mechanic in real life, helps build up the audience’s empathy. Most heart-tugging is to encounter Souleymane trying to memorise a false narrative, spun for him by an agent, that would ostensibly help expedite the legalisation of his immigration. How can he seek refuge as a political asylum-seeker when he is intrinsically not ‘political’ and knows nothing about politics Why can’t the truth about his life help him sail through?

Cashing in on despair

Beyond Souleymane’s personal predicaments, Lojkine also documents the entire industry that gets built around immigration and asylum. It is a business that involves profiting from the despair and desperation of people, with greedy agents assuring passage to safety and security at a high price. But do they deliver on their promise? On the other hand, are the supposedly hostile authorities insensitive to the plight of the nameless, faceless, invisible, and undocumented souls that haunt their cities? Lokjine does not demonise the officer, caught as she is between her sympathy for Souleymane and adherence to the rules and regulations.

The film does not offer closure. Will Souleymane be given the right to live and work in France? We don’t know. What we do gather is the implicit appeal to immigrants at large to not allow others to write stories for them but to take control of their narratives. Hopefully, there will be many to lend them an ear.

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The New Indian Express