Friday 11 March 2011

Soul Boy

Directed by Hawa Essuman

Viewers wanting an unsubtle, simplistic, sentimental and crude depiction of slum life could be advised at this point to watch Slumdog Millionaire instead of Soul Boy. Filmed around Kibera, Nairobi’s biggest slum, this is a light-footed, extremely funny and mischievous combination of youthful adventure and adult reality. A young man awakens to find his father in a difficult state – bleary eyed, unable to speak, having trouble remembering where he was last night.

A grownup would naturally blame the demon drink, but the father blames a demon woman. There’s a certain figure down at the edges of the slum, says he and the neighbourhood boys, who wreaks havoc on men’s souls. Once she’s taken cruel advantage of them, they’re shadows of the mighty characters they used to be. The son determines to get his father’s soul back…. and so begins a clear, fast, jaunty and well-populated trip through the slums and beyond. He visits this so-called demon woman, who cheekily sets him seven secret tasks which he much fulfil in order to restore his father’s soul/dignity. The woman is, of course, not a demon at all, but a persecuted hate figure against whom gossip and slander are used to divert attention from the perpetrators’ cheating and drinking. Our hero is assisted by his young sweetheart, a gobby and utterly charming, charismatic girl who goes through life with her chin tilted high against the assaults of the world.

Essuman does not shy away from depicting the dust, squalor and overcrowding of Kibera but her fair-minded portrayal also shows us the surrounding families’ industry and hard work, the way they are pressed by those a little higher up the social ladder to pay inflated rents on the small shops and businesses they run, the way local groups find and punish thieves, the playfulness of the young and the general cohesiveness, co-operation and energy of even this modest part of the city. Everyone, apart from the young, is engaged in work: the father at his shop, the mother making textiles, her sister as a maid to a rich white family living only a taxi ride away, where there are no slums, just stables, beautiful homes sunk into lavish gardens, peace… and black people to do all the work. And yet there are parallels – in both families it is the women, not the men, who do most of the work and claim to be unable to do housework because they are too caught up with their more-important tasks outside the home.

The film is a little ripe around the edges – a scene of drama in the white family’s luxurious home can be predicted five minutes beforehand and the kid acting by all except the protagonist is a touch too stagey. But Soul Boy succeeds by its humour and its cheerful overturning of our expectations about ‘a film about poverty’ because it widens sharply into something far greater: a romp about transcendence and games, a pert legend about what happens when a boy becomes a man while his father acts like a child.