Breakneck Authenticity of Immigration Drama

in Cannes 2024

by Sadia Khalid

Immigration, without exception, comes with a set of woes, whether it is for a better life or just to escape a grimmer alternative. The case of Souleymane of Guinea is no exception, but coming to France bypassing proper channels presents far harsher realities than what he could have ever anticipated.

Boris Lojkine’s The Story of Souleymane (L’Histoire de Souleymane) won hearts and multiple awards at the 77th Cannes Film Festival. The film won the Jury Award as well as the Fipresci Award while the lead, debutant actor Abou Sangare, won the Best Actor Award of Un Certain Regard.

The film follows Souleymane as he races against the clock, delivering food on an app where he is registered as someone else, someone who has a valid work permit. This person charges him a hefty sum, almost half of his earnings, as payment for lending his verified ID. After paying for the ID, Souleymane is left with so little that he can’t afford a roof over his head. He takes refuge in a shelter that also feeds the inhabitants, making it possible for people like him to survive in the unforgivingly capitalistic city of Paris.

A day in the life of Souleymane is littered with misfortune. The customers and restaurants aren’t particularly nice to riders like him. Restaurants sometimes make him wait for unreasonably long durations curbing his income even further, as losing time means potentially less number of deliveries. Customers sometimes refuse to take the delivery if there’s any slight deviation, like the time when Souleymane gets into an accident on his way, dirt gets on the packaging and the customer blames him for not maintaining standards. He is so focused on completing a certain number of deliveries before catching the last bus to his shelter that he doesn’t even hustle the driver who struck him for compensation. Then comes the reviews in the app that only serve the customers and restaurants, leaving the already powerless riders even more vulnerable.

Souleyman’s immigration hearing is in two days. So, on top of all his everyday stress, he needs to prepare to pass the interview to secure his papers to live and work in France legally. He is counseled to lie to the OFPRA committee to increase his chances of getting political asylum. As if merely facing the interview wasn’t anxiety-inducing enough, Souleymane has to memorize every detail of a story that isn’t his, one he must appropriate in hopes of a brighter future in a foreign land.

The film’s pacing is like that of an edge-of-your-seat action movie, yet the cinematography mimics a documentary approach. Even without the presence of an old-fashioned villain, his life is like a ticking time bomb that can go off any second. The story is told with clarity and detail, which helps to keep the audience engrossed at all times. This might have been the reason there was no sound of snoring or sight of bobbing heads struggling to stay awake in the theatre during its screenings at Cannes. However, the discussion with the cast and crew before the film began was lost on the non-French speaking audiences, as the presentation was in French. We later came to know some of the gripping gist of that conversation, which included anecdotes of the lead actor being in a similar situation as Souleyman. No wonder his acting was so convincing.

At the end of a rollercoaster ride, when Souleymane finally sits face to face with the immigration officer (Nina Meurisse), he fights tooth and nail to secure the illusive papers for which he has sacrificed so much. With Lojkine and Delphine Agut’s (“Inshallah a Boy”) brilliantly paced screenplay, it isn’t hard for the audiences to read the subtext of this climactic scene- is immigration worth all this trouble, leaving your country, family, identity behind and replacing it with a made-up story?

The film stood out with its timely humane core issue, its compact storytelling, powerful acting, and genre-bending fluidity. At an age when the forever-shrinking attention span of viewers is a constant threat to the longevity of feature films, The Story of Souleymane stands out as a film that can work with both festival and general audiences.

Sadia Khalid
Edited by Ela Bittencourt