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Sleeping Sickness

A German doctor working to fight a sleeping sickness epidemic in Cameroon must make difficult choices as he decides whether or not to return to Europe with his family. Ulrich Köhler's award-winning film, a subtle and meditative examination of the social and psychological forces that intersect Western aid to Africa, follows Dr. Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma) as he prepares to turn the medical program over to his replacement. Three years later, we see the consequences of Ebbo's choice from the perspective of Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly), a young doctor who has come to evaluate the program. An African raised in France, Alex finds both African attitudes and Dr. Velten elusive and enigmatic. Köhler creates a palpable sense of dread and danger, stemming as much from the characters' internal landscapes as from the corruption and military conflict that surround them. At times lushly beautiful as well as languorous and claustrophobic, the film's echoes of Conrad's Heart of Darkness suggest the degree to which colonial attitudes remain embedded in contemporary minds. Sleeping Sickness's elliptical structure examines the gaps in knowledge, misguided assumptions, and loneliness left in the wake of the characters' varied attempts to find a temporary home within a foreign culture.

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