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Review- The High Seas of Injustice: A Sailor’s Resistance in ‘Diego Star’

Review- The High Seas of Injustice: A Sailor's Resistance in 'Diego Star'

“A sailor’s life is like that. We
don’t see our sons grow up. When we come back on land, we find a woman who’s
remade, rearranged her life in her own way, and sons who’ve become men.”

These are
the words of Traore (Issaka Sawadogo), a black sailor who becomes embroiled in a heated
controversy aboard a battered Russian cargo ship, called the Diego Star. With over 18 years of experience navigating the sea, he’s
the target of a ship malfunction that he didn’t cause, and is pressured to take
the fall for it by the ship’s captain.

It’s a
cold, focused film, absent of music and sentimentalism. We are anchored by the
mounting frustration in Traore, who becomes increasingly isolated when the ship
is towed to the nearest shipyard for repairs. Writer/Director Frédérick Pelletier
carefully addresses workplace exploitation, with fresh insights into individual
self-determination, playing with the “heroic whistle-blower” portrayal we’ve
seen in other films. Immigrant workers here aren’t so much brave as they are
fed up and tired of not receiving compensation for their labor. Traore won’t
take the fall for the ship’s systemic failures and endeavors to tell the truth
when the authorities step in, but at what cost?

Shot in a snowy
Quebec, Traore clings to metaphorical warmth- photographs of family members in
the Ivory Coast, a lonely church, and the baby of a solitary single mother he
boards with, Fanny (Chloe Bourgeois). She’s a lunch lady for the shipyard, who takes Traore in to
receive money for housing a sailor.

relationship becomes an exploration of the areas of Traore that we don’t see in
the film- his sons, his family, and his home in Abidjan, to which he fosters a
warm estrangement. He willingly helps care for Fanny’s son, even babysitting
while she goes out to party. It is a smartly written relationship that does not
rely on usual contrivances of instant sexual chemistry or easy conflict. In him, she
sees a friend and ally. He sees the same. 

Issaka Sawadogo gives a nuanced performance that builds frustration
and empathy in the viewer by offering no easy answers. Having appealed to a
port official with the true story of the ship’s malfunction and still
ostracized without pay, he sits in a dimly lit bar, roughly wiping tears from
his face. He isn’t sobbing, but he’s reached a state of definite uncertainty. 

The film’s sense
of place only elevates this. The snow overwhelms; it is part of the very fabric
of the characters and the story. It isolates and frustrates, it makes
everything difficult- to walk, to run, to breathe. It is a great complement to
the situation that Pelletier has created in the film. 

This is no Captain Phillips or Erin Brockovich tale. There is no hero or redemption to be had, only
singular resistance that comes with a high price. In the end, I wondered if Traore would think it was all worth it. 


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