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BERLINALE 2024 Encounters

Review: Demba


- BERLINALE 2024: Senegalese director Mamadou Dia deals with mental health and the perception of it, with a distinct stylistic approach that works both in the film’s favour and to its detriment

Review: Demba
Ben Mahmoud Mbow in Demba

After winning Best First Feature at Locarno in 2019 for Nafi's Father, Senegalese filmmaker Mamadou Dia arrives in the Berlinale's Encounters competition with his new film, Demba, also set in his hometown of Matam, in the north of the country. It primarily deals with the issue of mental health, which the director tackles by mixing reality, memories, flashbacks and delusions, to the point of unrecognisability. This results in both a stylistically impressive picture and a lack of narrative clarity.

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The title character, played by Ben Mahmoud Mbow, is a middle-aged city-hall employee who is getting fired after 27 years of service. The mayor, Demba's childhood friend, says this decision is due to their digitalisation project, which should simplify bureaucratic procedures, rendering our hero's role redundant. But rumours abound that the real reason is his difficult nature – something his estranged son, Bajjo (Mamadou Syla), also seems to believe.

Indeed, it seems that Demba is often unreasonably explosive and confrontational. But no one seems to recognise that the man is, in fact, depressed: the second anniversary of the death of his wife is coming up, so after losing his job, he is left with nothing. He keeps wearing his scrubby suit and tie and carrying his battered briefcase, coming back to city hall to protest about this injustice, often through physical aggression.

Mbow plays him with an all-out, naturalistic combination of despair, frenzy and anger. A powerful presence, the actor is often captured by DoP Sheldon Chau in mirrors or through windows, a clear indication of Demba's increasingly fractured state of mind. Fighting for his sanity, Demba tries to get closer to Bajjo, who works in an internet cafe and is at first dismissive of his father, but it is Oumy (Aicha Talla), the young man's girlfriend, who helps them connect. 

As Demba's mental health deteriorates, the story similarly gets harder to follow. At first, the cinematography and colour grading are distinctly different in depicting reality and Demba's state of mind, but there are also flashbacks to his time with his wife, which seem to imply either confusion in his memories or a feeling of guilt. Could the film also be about redemption?

Throughout the movie, the colours are strong and the contrast is high, lending an intensity to the atmosphere, while the "non-reality" segments have a hazy quality, supported by the music and sound design. But as these techniques get increasingly mixed, the viewer becomes unsure of what they are witnessing. A couple of narrative elements seem to foreshadow certain events or hark back to Demba's past, additionally blurring the borders between the different levels.

If Dia's goal was to immerse us in the hero's painfully fractured inner world, he has certainly succeeded. In the press notes, he mentions that his native language doesn't even have a word for depression, so it is easily conceivable how Demba's state of mind is perceived in his community. The film also contains hallucinatory and, at times, frightening scenes involving ancient local customs that will be mysterious to most international viewers. Supposedly, the audience's experience then mirrors the characters' lack of understanding for Demba's plight – but the narrative approach of the film might by this point have already turned them off. Mbow is a compelling actor, and his dedicated portrayal of pain and anguish is a triumph, but it could turn out to be challenging to expect the viewer to stay with this after they lose the storytelling thread.

Demba is a co-production between Senegal's Joyedidi and Germany's NiKo Film. Paris-based The Party Film Sales has the international rights.

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