They say there’s a renaissance in African cinema at the moment. That may well be, as I’ve had the chance to see two decent new films from the continent within the last couple of weeks: the rollicking Viva Riva!, from the Congo, and now from Ghana, courtesy of the LA Film Festival, The Destiny of Lesser Animals.
The film’s genesis was in writer/lead Yao B. Nunoo’s policier script, set originally in his film-school home of Philadelphia but relocated to his home country of Ghana. The first half of the film plays out just like Stray Dog, with young cop Boniface in search of his stolen gun and a seemingly invisible quarry, in company with an avuncular father-figure chief inspector. But the gun’s not stolen: Boniface hid it as an excuse to track down the guy who swiped his fresh new passport with fake visa and as his relationship with Oscar, the older man, grows closer, the moment when he must confess draws closer too (it doesn’t go well).
Boniface is desperate to return to the United States. He was deported for assaulting a cop in a scene that uses a 9/11 radio report on the soundtrack as a crass shorthand and makes little actual sense of Boniface’s actions; the opening scene in the visa office is delightfully concise and spot-on but much of the rest of the film is disappointingly unengaging and woolly, which is a shame, because it turns into rather a heartfelt piece. Despite frequent voice-overs, Boniface never quite springs to life; this is partly inbuilt, as the film would like, at heart, to be about a man finding himself, learning that he is not the proverbial leopard, whose destiny is different from that of lesser animals. Some of the ineffectiveness of those voice-overs is in the rather rote writing – elsewhere someone actually says in dialogue “he trusted me and I betrayed him”; our interest in Boniface is further undermined but the vague nature of his aspirations, and the conflict between his desire to move to the US and the notion that he should find himself in his own home country is played out at the simplest level.
It’s also a bit disconcerting that he shows no shame at directly causing a prostitute to be beaten as a result of his clumsy intervention, and rather than springing finally to life with righteous, revengeful anger at the end, the film simply tales off. This would be rather a sweetly bitter admission of human failure and self-pity, but we haven’t reached the point of caring, and the addition of a mute beggar girl who pops up helpfully at various points (we also get a superfluous “it’s the same girl!” earlier in the film) feels tired.
The film takes its time, and for the most part the policier elements and the contemplative drama are uncomfortably combined. The back-and-forth investigation provides an efficient enough motor, but not a great deal is made of the local setting; the soundtrack incorporates native music elements, but is mostly wallpaper (save a very pretty guitar at the end). Director Deron Albright was on a Fulbright scholarship teaching at the national film school during production, and has made a movie of laudable aspiration but undercooked execution.
Find out more about the film and watch the trailer on the LAFF site.