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Helmer still missing on eve of ‘Djassa’ preem

Producers lost track of Lonesome Solo after fleeing Ivory Coast

JOHANNESBURG — A gritty new drama from Ivory Coast will be having its world premiere in Toronto, but the pic’s first-time helmer won’t be on hand to witness it.

Lonesome Solo, director of “Burn It Up Djassa,” vanished six months ago, according to the film’s producer, Philippe Alain Lacote. With its Toronto preem just days away, Lacote hopes to offer the raw street pic as a testament to Solo’s work, and to show the world “that Ivory Coast is alive.”

“Djassa” is set in Wassakara, a tough, working-class district of Abidjan, the Ivorian commercial capital, and centers on the conflict between two brothers who follow different paths out of the ghetto: one by joining the police force, the other by pursuing a life of crime.

Lacote says the film charts the difficult choices being made by young people in a country battered by years of ethnic conflict and an economic free-fall that has unraveled what was once one of the continent’s strongest economies.

“Art is difficult in this place,” says the French-Ivorian producer, whose company, Wassakara Productions, is named for the neighborhood in which “Djassa” is set. “In Ivory Coast we have no cinema market. My idea was if I produce here a low-budget film, it can be possible to make film here.”

“Djassa” was shot in 11 days on a budget of $15,000, drawing on the vibrancy and raw creative energy of Abidjan’s streets. The dialogue is mostly spoken in Nouchi, an Ivorian street slang that serves as a lingua franca for the country’s disenchanted and disaffected youths.

Lacote says it was important to make a film that didn’t just tell a compelling story but offered hope for his country’s young artists. He drew cast and crew from both sides of the ethnic divide — a bold move at a time when well-known musicians were being paid off by rival politicians to increase their popular support.

“This war broke a lot of things in the artistic world in Ivory Coast,” says Lacote. “This film is a part of the conflict.”

Lensing finished just weeks before the outbreak of violence in Dec. 2010. As the war intensified, Lacote had to move to Paris to finish post.

But the triumph of completing the film was short-lived. Earlier this year, director Solo — who lost everything in the war — decided to leave Ivory Coast. Traveling overland across West Africa, he hoped, like many young Africans, to find a better life in Europe. There was news of him from Mali, then Mauritania. Word eventually reached Lacote that he had made it as far as Morocco. But then the producer lost track of him, and Solo hasn’t been heard from since.

Lacote sighs as he tells the director’s tale.

“This is the story of young people in my country,” he says.

The producer is now looking ahead to the opportunities that “Djassa” offers. Lacote, who splits his time between his native Abidjan and Paris, says that the selection for Toronto could act as a catalyst for Ivory Coast’s nascent film industry.

“Now my fight is to make something rise up in my country,” he says.

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