Like Claire Denis’s recent White Material, Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness, which earned a Silver Bear for directing at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, is something of a postcolonial Heart of Darkness, a complex and at times allegorical portrait of Europeans living in Africa. On the surface, at least, Köhler’s film appears more grounded in realism than Denis’s delirious terror, focusing on the twinned stories of two doctors: Eddo Velten (Pierre Bokma), who oversees a program to combat African trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, in rural Cameroon, and Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly), the Congo-born Parisian who’s sent to investigate his progress. Köhler is also more explicitly interested in the broader structure of international aid, addressing, and perhaps indicting, an entire system that, while it successfully treats and contains the outbreak of infectious illness, also breeds other types of maladies: corruption, exploitation, and the continued economic and political imbalance between the two regions. Sleeping Sickness, however, refrains from an activist viewpoint and describes instead an entrenched bureaucratic and moral morass that’s as murky as its hippo-infested waters.
Read Genevieve Yue’s review of Sleeping Sickness.