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Review: Leaving Amerika


- Painting a wonderful, poignant portrait of an African-American man, Marie-Pierre Brêtas offers up an enthralling road movie revealing the social and racial divides in the USA

Review: Leaving Amerika

"Adversity is character-building", "I know what you want but you won’t get it from me. My people have come too far and I’ve come too far in my life to submit myself or to allow myself to be dehumanised just to put you at ease". In films, and even more so in documentaries, our choice of characters is crucial. With Derrick Johnson, the captivating protagonist in Leaving Amerika - which was unveiled in a world premiere within the 46th Cinéma du Réel Festival’s international competition - cosmopolitan French director Marie-Pierre Brêtas (acclaimed for her Brazilian works La Campagne de Sao José and Hautes terres) has hit the jackpot in terms of charisma, flow and an unusual trajectory.

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Straightaway, these strengths come together to create a sensational opening sequence, clearly helped by the long-term friendship which exists between the filmmaker (who shot the film herself, and very well for that matter) and her subject. Theirs is a bond born out of a random meeting, 30 years ago, on a beach in New York and which has miraculously survived the test of time.

As such, it’s into the throes of a highly personal journey, which begins at night-time in a Walmart car park in Florida, where Derrick sleeps in his car ("I could pay rent but I’d still end up at the same point: living from one bill to the next"), that we’re catapulted by this movie, which is mobile to say the least, moving between Johnson City (Tennessee) and Havana (where Derrick has been planning to live as an expat for years), Miami and Brooklyn, and all the way over to Ithaca. Over time, these varied geographies serve to reconstruct Derrick’s tumultuous past as a youngster from a neighbourhood where earning people’s respect with your fists was essential, as a student in Cortland (where his life took a crucial turn), as a drugs trafficker, a convict, a poet (he’s the author of A Black Man’s Journal – Poetic Expressions), an African-American activist, and as a member of the working poor in ultraliberal America (employed as an Uber driver, among other jobs).

After spending too many years trying to play the social game by respecting rules which clash with his ideals ("we won’t let them break us or oppress us", "if you know your rights, they see you as a problem"), our man has now decided to claim back his freedom, to try to fulfil his dream, "to go against the grain, to step outside of the box, to do the unconventional or what American would deem to be unconventional". For this reason, before exiling himself definitely, opting for a serene life alone in Havana, Derrick visits a few family members and friends, accompanied on his journeys by his filmmaker friend, chatting with her and sharing key moments of his life and his memory in a country which doesn’t cut you any breaks.

Giving her fascinating and introspection-focused character free reign, allowing for weaker moments in order to lend the more poignant passages more intensity, and happily incorporating accidental film footage (in particular, a homeless person passing by, wearing a top hat in the colours of the American flag, who whispers "Abracadabra" to her), Marie-Pierre Brêtas offers up a remarkable documentary about the ups and downs of a quest (finding one’s place in the world) and about bravery, endurance and the keen faith we need in our dreams in order to achieve our goals.

Leaving Amerika is produced by French firm Bootstrap Label (who are also managing sales), in co-production with 8h13 Productions.

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(Translated from French)

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