PORT DJEMA A
France Italy Greece (93 mi) 1998 d: Eric Heumann
Actually shot in Eritrea, where from the opening shot of an airplane one sees Ethiopian Airlines, this is a brilliant, intricately woven story that intelligently advances shot by shot, thought by thought, with terrific use of sound, layered in sumptuous music by Sanjay Mishra along with other sounds of northern Africa, with an acute interest in what’s taking place both inside and outside of one contemplative white French doctor who ventures into the heart of a fictitious ex-Colonial French territory in East Africa that’s undergoing a bloody civil war unseen by tourists who are forbidden to travel into the war zones, but like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the deeper he explores the region, the more he uncovers the profound human consequences. Heumann produced recent Angelopoulos films LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST (1988) and ULYSSES GAZE (1995), also the recent French film INDOCHINE (1992), here he co-writes his first feature with Jacques Lebas, a French doctor, who from 1988 to 1991 ran humanitarian medical organizations in Lebanon, Romania, Cambodia, and the Soviet Union, raising questions about treating “the world’s wounds.” Angelopoulos co-produces the film and lends his extraordinary cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis, whose camera slowly follows the doctor down empty streets, moving through the hot, desolate Third World terrain filled with hidden faces with unknown agendas, quick glances from people who disappear in an eyelash, or dead serious looks by soldiers carrying machine guns that are meant to intimidate foreigners into believing their influence in places like this have been reduced to nothing. To live here is to take sides, otherwise life is meaningless. People have no other business being there.
Keeping his purpose there a secret, Doctor Feldman, played with very few words and an everpresent cigarette by Jean Yves Dubois, is called an existential tourist by his own government, which claims neutrality in the war, but has a military attaché in the field playing both sides against the other, aiding one side by day, the other by night. With each moment filled with a sense of fear and constant danger, mixed with images of great beauty, Feldman follows the tracks of his friend and colleague, Antoine Barasse, the only doctor aiding the rebel’s cause, who was recently murdered, but is heard throughout the film in letters and tape recordings. With the unsolicited help of a rebel cab driver and the accidental assistance from a beautiful Swiss photographer (Nathalie Boutefeu), who unbeknownst to Feldman turns out to be Barasse’s former lover, Feldman passes through violent military checkpoints and enters the unknown danger zone where people are seen as tiny specks against the immense desert landscape. As he draws nearer to the conflict, bloody bodies are scattered around the desert landscape. It is only with the help of others that he finds the clinic, reporting to the Catholic Sister in charge, where he has instructions from Barasse to look after a refugee child, seen only in a photograph, and the Sister doesn’t recognize the child. Confused, without the raison d’etre that led him there in the first place, he takes the Sister’s advice and leaves undetected, under cover of darkness early the next morning.
A woman tries to push a malnourished, dehydrated child into his arms, pleading for help from a doctor, but he departs from this madness, only to encounter more madness on the way out, alone, expressed by a single boat sent to pick him up on a long, lonely shore. He returns to town, which is now being evacuated, as guerilla fighters with machine guns are shooting over rooftops, hiding under cover of laundry sheets hanging from a line, as helpless humans flee for their lives only to encounter loyalist government troops, men with guns who take sadistic pleasure at brutalizing others, slaughtering innocent victims, punching and kicking Feldman, ripping up his passport for sport in front of others, leaving him writhing on the ground, a feeble fragment of his former self who has now lost his moral bearings in this Godforsaken wasteland.
Alone, like all the others who are alone, he seems a helpless victim, and his journey out of the war zone was no less harrowing than his journey in. One wonders why he didn’t stay, why he didn’t connect with the life and death urgency that obviously required his expertise, which included the connection to the mysterious woman he so easily becomes separated from without ever discovering her unique interest in being there. He passes on these opportunities, which one mustn’t take lightly, as they are so rare. Besides the lingering aftereffects of Colonialism, that seems to be the message of the film, to pay special attention to the magical moments in one’s lifetime where you are in a position to see around the corners, beyond the edges into the mysteriously unique realm of the remarkable. His friend told him the story of the refugee child just to get him there, but there never was a child, there was only a war, and a very unique woman photographing the war who, it turns out, took the picture years ago of that child, smiling in the face of the unknowable.