Playing as much like an allegory as a documentary, Branwen Okpako's "Dirt for Dinner" artfully assembles the disturbing story of Sam Ngankouo Meffire who grew up to become a cop, a model citizen and, finally, a convicted criminal. After award-winning fest run and specialized Euro art web airings, further non-Euro showings appear limited.

Playing as much like an allegory as a documentary, Branwen Okpako’s “Dirt for Dinner” artfully assembles the disturbing story of Sam Ngankouo Meffire, a mixed-race child of a Cameroon father and East German mother who grew up to become a cop, a model citizen and, finally, a convicted criminal. Blame is never affixed and ultimate explanations never found for Meffire’s strange downward trajectory, and the uncertainty becomes a perfect fit with pic’s impressionist style, marbled with some of Meffire’s fine, rather opaque verse. After award-winning fest run and specialized Euro art web airings, further non-Euro showings appear limited.

Since making this docu, Okpako has ventured into feature drama (with last year’s intermittently effective “Valley of the Innocent”). Like that pic, “Dirt for Dinner” examines an aspect of the difficulties faced by mixed-race East Germans after the collapse of Communism. Integration, in this context, takes on a double meaning, since Meffire grew up in a theoretically tolerant if totalitarian society.

His story is marked from the start by the murder of his father under mysterious circumstances by possibly racist youths just after Meffire’s birth.

Never quite having been accepted may have driven Meffire to succeed in school; obviously of above-average intellect, he says he wanted the challenge of “performance-based” schooling, and felt growing up in the DDR that he was “in a straitjacket.”

After becoming a cop in the Saxony province, the fall of the Berlin Wall led to the kind of turn that sounds like a plot twist in a Volker Schlondorff film. Randomly spotted, Meffire was asked by a local newspaper to pose for an ad touting multi-cultural tolerance. His handsome mug became ubiquitous in the region with the ad line, “A Saxon,” turning him into a minor celebrity and a symbol of the new Germany.

Friends, like Olaf Schutz, describe Meffire as “always a wanderer in enemy territory,” and despite the cop’s best efforts, a sense of doom seems to hang over his personality. Coming into contact with shady characters like felon Felix Fischer (interviewed here before his death) appears to have led Meffire to leave the police force and join a ring of thieves in the mid-’90s. Arrested and sentenced to a 10-year prison term in 1996, Meffire was released after the docu was completed.

Adding richness to Okpako’s work — and raising it beyond a docu of purely local interest — is Meffire’s contemplative, dense-sounding poetry (narrated by Johannes Brandrup), which is several levels above typical prison rhymes. The director bridges her interviews — with relatives, friends, associates and, most intriguingly, with international journalists who followed Meffire’s case — with fluid visual wipes of abstract imagery that lend the film a spiritual dimension. Moreover as an African-German herself, Okpako inserts her presence from time to time into the film as an inquiring filmmaker/journalist, and as a black woman trying to fathom the fall of one of Germany’s few recent celebrated black men.

Susanne Schule’s deliberately grainy lensing, a complex soundtrack and Calle Overweg’s confident editing of dozens of interviews produces a potent cinematic package. German title literally translates as “dirt eater.”

Dirt for Dinner

Germany

Production

A German Film and Television Academy production in association with ZDF. (International sales: German Film and Television Academy, Berlin.) Produced by Jorg Schneider. Directed, written by Branwen Okpako, with poems by Sam Ngankouo Meffire.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Susanne Schule; editor, Calle Overweg; sound (Dolby SR), Dirk Niemeier, Martin Steyer; assistant director, Christine Schachtschnabel. Reviewed at Pan African Film Festival, Los Angeles, Feb.11, 2004. Running time: 77 MIN.

With

Sam Ngankouo Meffire, Christine Mittmeier, Sebastian Turner, Christina Brusl, Jurgen Jeibmann, Ulli Hauser, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Francois Deletraz, Olaf Schutz, Herr Schlinzing, Mike Reichel, Matthias Ruge, Heinz Eggert, Felix Fischer, Branwen Okpato, Johannes Brandrup. Narrator: Johannes Brandrup.
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