A little light goes a long way in Boris Gerrets’ “Shado’man,” a taxingly under-contextualized gutter-level group portrait set among a community of Sierra Leone “streetboys” whose lively spirit seems unbroken by blindness and various other disabilities. Mostly men (despite a couple of female hangers-on who bask in the guys’ flirtatious chatter) and effectively homeless (though at least one sleeps in a cold cement bedroom), these friends hang out at night, overlooked by locals — and yet, by virtue of Gerrets’ unobtrusive interest in marginal existences, visible to international audiences, most likely via cause-conscious fests and Euro TV.
Set in the poorer parts of the Sierra Leonese capital of Freetown, this sensitive-minded docu operates roughly in the vein of “Dark Days” (minus those outcasts’ exit strategy), humanizing innocents scarred by a recent civil war who now dwell in the shadows of a city with no shortage of adversity. Of course, the damaged souls also come out in the day, though Gerrets seems determined to confine his shooting to the haunted midnight hour, as the crippled yet charismatic young men talk a big game and orphaned children curl up atop hard pavement, dreaming behind sightless eyes. Compositionally, the dimly lit footage reaches back centuries to a tradition of dark and evocative Dutch painting.
Without much-needed narration or a clear structure to guide its woeful succession of stolen moments, the docu answers questions we hadn’t thought to ask about how these dispossessed individuals bathe, date and otherwise pass their nights. The film functions as an act of empathy, but how well can we really know such strangers when the film keeps them at a distance? Despite occasional flashes of familiarity, “Shado’man” expects too much of a distant public, counting on audiences to fumble and find moments of connection in the dark.