Sleeping Sickness keeps its touch light

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      Starring Pierre Bokma and Jean-Christophe Folly. In French, Dutch, and German with English subtitles. Unrated. Opens Friday, April 20, at the Vancity Theatre

      Just as the slow death of colonial empires once provided ample material for European novelists, so now does the postcolonial condition inspire European filmmakers. This is particularly true of Africa, the continent where economic miracles are unknown, democracy is theoretical, ethnic animosity devolves into genocide, religious hatreds are still rampant, and life expectancy is below 50 in most places.

      As for the outside world, it is notoriously uninterested in tapping the tremendous human potential of Africa. Instead, large corporations make backroom deals while NGOs do what they can with minimal resources.

      Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma), the doctor hero of Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness, is very much like the protagonist of one of the later Graham Greene novels. For him, what used to be known as the Dark Continent will never be home, something that it most definitely is for Dr. Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly), a young French colleague who was born in the Congo. Both men are employed by the World Health Organization in Cameroon, but only one is dreaming of resuming his barely remembered bourgeois German existence. The problem is, Ebbo seems to be turning into the NGO equivalent of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz. Things don’t stop there, however. Despite his growing disaffection, Ebbo might well provide new meaning to the phrase “going native”.

      Köhler strikes a nice balance between realism and a denouement that might have impressed even Kafka. Best of all, despite European origins, Sleeping Sickness never tries to “reoccupy” Africa. Its light touch is that of a respectful visitor, not a smug conqueror.

      Watch the trailer for Sleeping Sickeness.