There exists a rich anthropological patchwork of survival stories from sub-Saharan African migrants who have traversed desert and sea in pursuit of a better life in Europe, yet it’s one that has remained largely untapped on film. That’d be reason enough to welcome “Hope” to the extreme road-movie subgenre populated by the likes of “In This World” and “The Golden Dream,” even if the film weren’t as commendably tough and vividly realized as it is. Chronicling the pragmatic but finally tender alliance between a young Nigerian woman and a Cameroonian man battling brutal odds to reach the shores of Spain, this confident narrative debut for French docu helmer Boris Lojkine is perhaps too solemnly muted (and its title too ironic) for extensive non-Francophone distribution. It will, however, be a handsome addition to many a socially conscious festival lineup.
Though there’s still a disappointing dearth of African-focused cinema from emerging indigenous filmmakers on the international fest circuit, Lojkine is the latest of several outside talents to take a sensitive interest in the continent’s social inequalities. With its respectfully urgent tone and keenly detailed research, the film stands comparison with Canadian Kim Nguyen’s “War Witch” and Italian Noaz Deshe’s “White Shadow,” two recent festival sensations that similarly braided unflinching sociopolitical reportage with hard-edged romance. Rich lensing notwithstanding, “Hope” boasts fewer expressionistic flourishes than either of those films. Lojkine previously helmed two documentary studies of postwar Vietnam; he honors his nonfiction roots here with his grounded, observational direction of a non-professional ensemble.
Hope is the chief source of fuel in the arduous cross-country trek depicted in the film. In the least subtle symbolic detail from Lojkine’s script, it’s also the name of the female protagonist (played by the equally auspiciously monikered Endurance Newton), a lone young Nigerian who attaches herself to a group of male Cameroonians heading north. Humiliated and raped by her fellow travelers, she is rescued and subsequently protected by Leonard (Justin Wang), who accompanies her to the bleak migrant ghettos set up on the urban fringes of Tamanrasset, Algeria – a complex, corruption-riddled underworld divided along national lines, with each community ruled by its own unofficial government.
Having refused to join her compatriots, Hope is permitted to remain with the Cameroonians after she marries Leonard in a ceremony administered by the ghetto’s ruthless chairman (Dieudonne Bertrand Balo’o). To call the honeymoon period short would be an understatement. On their wedding night, Leonard literally pimps out his new bride to the highest bidder; prostitution becomes their grim but mutually accepted means of funding their eventual flight to Europe. Lojkine’s perspective on the situation avoids moral judgment or hand wringing: This unhappy arrangement is instead presented as the closest approximation of financial solvency available to the couple. It’s a solution that duly aggravates the controlling chairman and his heavies — particularly when Hope falls pregnant.
Amid unrelenting hardship and violence, the film traces the gradual development of a tender rapport between Hope and Leonard, as their union shifts from one of convenience to one of mutual emotional dependence. It’s this development, enacted with playful authenticity by Newton and Wang, that gives proceedings warmth and depth beyond their journalistic shock value. Both actors, like the entire cast, are real-life migrants discovered by Lojkine while researching the ghettos of Rabat; they are impressive physical performers, their intuitive understanding of the matters at hand more than compensating for minor shortfalls in dramatic nuance. From its ensemble to its production design, no element of the nightmarish story world in “Hope” feels imagined or ill considered.
Interestingly, for all the film’s raw immediacy in other departments, Lojkine steers clear of an overtly gritty verite aesthetic. David Bryant, of Montreal-based hybrid rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, contributes the pic’s mournful, judiciously applied score. Shot in earthy shades of dusk and dawn, Elin Kirschfink’s serene cinematography doesn’t romanticize the landscape, but does find friezes of beauty in its severity. Extensive nighttime sequences might strike some viewers as overly dark, but their disorientation effectively mirrors that of the characters.