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Berlin Film Festival 2024: Demba, The Strangers' Case, Black Tea

Syria and Turkey, the Ivory Coast and China, Senegal, and a smidge of America are the countries these three films take place in. With this globetrotting dispatch is a story about a husband grieving the memory of his wife, Middle Eastern refugees fleeing destruction, and a bride-to-be learning to become a tea sommelier. While each film is visually accomplished, narratively and thematically, this is the roughest of the Berlinale dispatches. So buckle up. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride. 

Ambitious in scope yet crushingly intimate, Senegalese writer/director Mamadou Dia’s “Demba,” an agonizing tone poem, witnesses its titular character psychologically unraveling under the weight of his long gestating bereavement. A year and a half ago, Demba’s wife Awa (Awa Djiga Kane) passed away: He still often gazes at her clothes, heels, and wigs that are scattered throughout the home. He also watches VHS tapes featuring footage of them together in happier days. In short, losing her has been challenging enough. Now the Mayor and City Hall, where he works as a registrar, is beginning to digitize its records – a painstaking process that’ll take three years and require a near-retired Demba to contribute part of his pension. Rather than risk his nest egg, Demba quits and sinks deeper into a depression that’ll prove tough for his estranged son Bajjo (Mamadou Sylla) to pull him out of. 

Dia’s survey of a bitter man overwhelmed by personal loss thrums on Alan Wu’s pitch-perfect editing and the evocative color grading, which switches us between Demba’s present cold, blue-grey-toned state and his former happy memories with Awa, tinged by butterscotch hues. Similar to the dynamic ways we move between Demba’s inner world and his exterior angst, the uneasy relationship with him and his son is a potent mixture: Bajjo desperately wants to advocate for his father even as Demba’s surliness wedges them apart. He pleads with his father to seek therapy, which he eventually does. It’s a vulnerable decision made by the closed-off bureaucrat. This is a man who is so surrounded by the past, he keeps birth, marriage, and death certificates (markers of life) for the town at the ready. 

Ben Mahmoud Mbow as Demba offers one of the festival’s best performances: He implicitly understands the labored shuffle and the desperate searching eyes belonging to this hollowed out husk of a man. Further visual flourishes by Dia — from woozy psychotic breaks to impressionistic dreamlike visions — enliven this character’s difficult journey through mourning. Because in “Demba” our relationship to death isn’t segregated from life, its pervading presence in the quotidian forces a taut tension onto the living. The question becomes whether we can allow grief and existence to peacefully coexist. Only Demba can find that answer for himself.  

I never caught my breath during writer/director Brandt Andersen’s bleak, emigrant thriller “The Strangers’ Case.” I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Broken into several chapters, each following a respective character through plights involving war-torn homelands and abject inequality, the film, whose title is inspired by a Shakespeare quote, begins, conspicuously, in Chicago by way of the camera pushing through the city’s trademark skyline toward “Trump” tower. It’s a visual thread concerning a President who proudly enacted xenophobic policies that never really returns. 

Instead, the first chapter, entitled “The Doctor,” leaps into a Chicago hospital where a tearful Amira (Yasmine Al Massri) in a tiny office begins to recall Aleppo, Syria, nine years ago, where she was a combat physician mending bodies broken by a horrific Civil War. Despite the extremist nationalism happening around her, punctuated by killing squads and a constant hail of rockets, today is a special day: It’s Amira’s birthday. She rushes home with her daughter Rasha (Massa Daoud) to celebrate. Their party ends when a rocket suddenly strikes their home, forcing Amira and Rasha to flee the country in the trunk of a car. 

Their journey becomes the film’s throughline: We meet the disillusioned Syrian soldier Mustafa (Mustafa), a poet (Ziad Bakri) protecting his family in a refugee camp, a cold, practical smuggler (a magnetic Omar Sy) in Turkey, and a haunted Greek Coast Guard Captain (Constantine Markoulakis). Each character is a parent, in a film that cloyingly employs children toward emotionally manipulative ends. The startling editing in this glossy picture does the same: Each part concludes on a traumatic cliffhanger, leaving us on baited breath to await some resolution in the next segment. This is a film that treasures misery as a vehicle for tension, but rarely as a chance for humanism to arise. By the end, Andersen has shaken, jarred and overwhelmed his audience so much that he forgets how to inspire them. 

There are few sights more shocking than a talented veteran filmmaker totally whiffing: That rare surprise occurred with director Abderrahmane Sissako’s jumbled and misjudged romance “Black Tea.” The latest film from the director behind the Oscar nominated  “Timbuktu,” witnesses Aya (Nina Mélo), a bride from the Ivory Coast who turns down marriage to learn about tea in China from tea shop owner Cai (Chang Han). In China she discovers a thriving African diaspora fluent in Mandarin with their own businesses – like the beauty shop she routinely visits to feel community. It’s an intriguing premise that welcomes a chance to learn about this neighborhood and its inhabitants. But Sissako doesn’t appear to have control over his narrative. 

References to Edward Yang and Wong Kar-wai are choked off from their usual power under the flat photography and plastic production design: Much of the Chinese setting looks artificial, as though filmed on a soundstage. Considering the narrative’s extremely late twist, you can sense how the aesthetic might be intended to work. Pedro Almodóvar is similarly highly stylized, using the gloss to hint at purposeful affectations that’ll eventually upend the world he’s crafted. But Sissako doesn’t land it. Aya and Cai develop a relationship in the face of his estranged wife (Wu Ke-Xi) and doting son (Michael Chang) that turns gazy, creepy, and exoticized – the film’s title is literally a reference to the nickname the locals have given Aya – rather than sensual and palpable. Random inserts also muddy the narrative, destabilizing Aya as a character.     

By the end, the film makes a grotesque turn, reshaping itself into a Chinese “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” that is rendered with greater cringe through a bad cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” Worst yet, the final twist doesn’t make much sense either. This is the kind of miss where you’re not wholly sure where the good intentions began or when disaster took over. I get the sense it might have happened in the edit, where maybe a more focused version of this story exists so the stilted style is a better tool for the narrative shift Sissako wanted to make. Or maybe “Black Tea” simply needed more time to brew.    

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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