Refugees are neither seen nor heard, but they are everywhere. They are witnesses to the most awful things that people can do to each other, and they become storytellers simply by existing. Refugees embody misery and suffering, and they force us to confront terrible chaos and evil

Arthur C. Helton

We wanted to rebuild our lives. That was all. We lost out home, which means the familiarity of life. We lost our occupation, the confidence that we are some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings.

Hannah Arendt

The Story of Souleymane (L’Histoire de Souleymane) by Boris Lojkine, featured in the Un Certain Regard (A Certain Glance) section of the 77th Cannes International Film Festival, bagged two awards in the said competition. 

The film, which traverses two days prior to an interview for asylum status by the protagonist, picked the Jury prize, as also the Best Actor Award for Abou Sangare, for his impressive bravura performance as Guinean biker delivery man Souleymane staking all to impress the French immigration officials for the prized asylum seeking deliverance from ‘on the run’ refugee status.  

The Un Certain Regard, turned out to be the only saving feature of the 77th Cannes International Film Festival, for committed cinephiles seeking excellent cinematic works, offering a perspective lens into current social reality situations across the world. 

Cinephiles, travelling from far and wide, who looked up to the festival main competition section as well to provide a similar enthralling experience, were in for disappointment, despite several big ticket renowned auteurs fare, turning more indulgence, run of the mill and never rising above the mundane. 

The Un Certain Regard section, rightfully and thankfully encourages, and provides a platform for, promising filmmakers, and on ascendency, as also ones taking their first baby steps into the directorial business, to premiere their new or first works and stamp their names in the annals of global film festival theatre circuits, prior to their proper theatrical releases back home.

It is in this regard that director Boris Lojkine, with his trademark engagement in exploring the lives of individuals far removed from their comfort zones and toiling miles away from their rooted landscapes, focusing on individual’s plight towards a better life, merits attention and appreciation. 

The Story of Souleymane as a result turns out an intimate and delectable work representing thousands of undocumented, replaceable people in society’s plain view through the trials and travails of its eponymous titular character. 

Immigration, asylum seeking, leaving one’s own homeland braving against all odds through life threatening situations, security conduits, to find a safe harbour and possibly a better future, has been the common feature of the countries ridden with civil strife, among other socio-political conflicts. 

As United Nations Refugee Chief Antonio Guterres has said “we can’t deter people fleeing for their lives. They will come. The choice we have is how well we manage their arrival, and how humanely.” 

One such man in need of authority’s empathy and understanding is what Boris Lojkine turns the beacon on in his latest visitation with The Story of Souleymane (L’Histoire de Souleymane), a tale that will resonate among the thousands of similar victims, but, more importantly, the authorities in governance who have to decide their fate, fair and square. 

Adopting a pulse pounding, racy thriller style of narrative, the native French film maker Boris Lojkine, known earlier for his works – the richly rewarded 2014 feature Hope, and 2019 Camille, has his audiences literally on the edge of their seats. 

The film relentless chronicles the two-day journey of a hard working, honest man pushed to the brink, turning it into a gut-wrenching portrayal despite the familiarity of the thematic subject, which resonates with all the raw intensity, to rouse the conscience of the audience and the authorities in question. 

The audiences are made to squirm and shift in their seats as they witness agape and aghast Souleymane race against time to cobble up the amount necessary to procure the documents for the interview, even as his mentally goes through answers based on the tutoring, he has received from a compatriot who runs them through the process in preparation for the I-day. 

In a way, one may say that director Boris returns to the familiar theme of exodus to a better destination which he tackled in Hope, wherein you had Leonard on a clandestine sojourn from Cameroon to Europe through the Sahara desert, where he meets Hope, a Nigerian girl on a similar journey pursing the same dream.

Hope, which was screened as part of the Critics’ Week section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival won the La Semaine de la Critique Award, besides the Critics Award at the Hamburg Film Festival who described it as: Boris Lojkine’s cinematic debut vividly reflects poverty and violence in post-colonial Africa in the personal drama of two refugees. The suffering of both of them is brought home to us in an oppressive way through the performance by the outstanding leading actors Endurance Newton and Justin Wang. Hope and Léonard surprise themselves, each other and even us in their battle for a better life.” 

If in Hope, it was a Cameroonian and a Nigerian girl set upon an arduous journey to escape their mitigating circumstances, in The Story of Souleymane though having found a safe harbour in France is still that one step away from legitimising his stay in the country – through turning his illegal immigrant situation, escaping deportation, should the grant of asylum not come through. 

But then, that is easier said and aspired for. The one hurdle that separates this is the interview OFPRA, the French governmental agency that deals with immigrant issues, where he has to convince the official concerned that Souleymane’s story is true of the situation in his country and he needs the safety and security that France would provide for persons like him. 

Souleymane latest to arrive in Paris from Guinea, sleeps in homeless shelters at night working as a delivery biker by day using a “borrowed” account paying a hefty cut of his earnings to the ‘real’ fleecing owner, Emmanuel. 

Despite it being a hard, physically demanding existence, lived in the teeth of a daily litany of deadlines, not only the countdowns on the constantly-dinging app, but metro timetables, documentation appointments and the unforgiving bus schedule, scooting and criss-crossing on his routines, Souleymane’s optimism is what that keeps him going. 

This even at the heart breaking situation that his girl back home has found a much educated engineer suitor who has sought her hand in marriage and having to let her go and decide what best suits her.

Such is his camaraderie and joviality and benign nature with the ilk of his own brethren community he is fondly hailed and addressed as “Souleymane of Paris,” virtually the man on the go who rules the gig duty and the by lanes of his beat. 

A non actor, Abou Sangare, with his natural and realistic portrayal of a distressed immigrant man escaping the long arm of the law makes for a nerve-wrecking and fetching debut as Souleymane, as he cycles and sprints and busses across the byzantine lanes and avenues of The City of Light (Ville lumière) – meeting his delivery orders even as he meets then men of his ilk who matter for his next day’s crucial interview and constantly repeats and memories the lines he needs to recite before the official.

Abou Sangare, who had arrived in France seven years earlier, in real life was a mechanic, who did deliveries for several weeks to familiarise himself with the everyday activities, the bike, the phone, the app… Bit by bit, entering into the skin of his character,” says the director.  Justifiably, Sangare delivers with aplomb, the confidence and trust reposed in him by the director, who believes that “non-professional actors (…) come with who they are, they are carriers of their world. It’s up to me to capture their uniqueness.”

What remains with you as you leave Souleymane and his fate played out on the screen, is the heart-rending scene between asylum seeker and the official, efficient but not unsympathetic face of French immigration bureaucracy.  

Most important of all is the film’s quintessential conflict of Souleymane to lie or not to lie, his conscience see-sawing between the truth and the expedient lie, and his lady counsel, having to do her duty by the book that gnaws at your emotive strings.

“The Story of Souleymane,” despite its derived handling can justifiably said is more of a sympathetic social realist drama that raises similar themes – be it fear, uncertainty, or paranoia about living as a person with no land to call his/her own – or a sense of futility about their dreams.

Co-written with fellow writer Delphine Agut of Inshallah A Boy fame – The Story of Souleymane is a film that is imbued with compassion that it the audience feel for and prayer for Souleymane’s success and deliverance from the Hamletian dilemma he is pinned into. 

Capturing every emotion, angst and anxiety that is writ large on Souleymane as he goes about his diurnal duties in nocturnal hues cinematographer Tristan Galand’s hand-held aesthetic makes for raw and realistic play of moods and milieu. 

As Lojkine and Tristan travel through every nook and niche snaking through Paris’ byzantine boulevards and lanes and bistros, the City itself comes alive as a character in itself and an epic theatre of battle where the City’s iconic architecture and the bureaucratic obstacles amplify Souleymane’s sense of isolation, while the tight, close up and wide angle shots capture the sprawling chaos of the City, holding a reflective mirror to Souleymane’s own internal as also external struggles. 
In sum, The Story of Souleymane turns out a triumph of social-realistic cinema successfully foregrounding the global phenomenon of refugees, immigration and the growing tribe of asylum seekers as they battle their devils in almost a no-man’s land of theirs.