Directed by the wonderfully named Lonesome Solo*, “Burn It Up Djassa” is a Scarfacian tragedy of a poor and disgruntled youth who rapidly gains power, even more rapidly blows it all, and then rapidly dies violently. Recounting the story is the poetry slamming Narrator (Mohamed Bamba) who witnessed the relatively epic rise and fall of the titular character (although we never do see him in the action). Played effectively by Abdoul Karim Konate (and referred to at various points as “Dabagou”, “Tony”, “the Cigarette Hawker”, and “The King”), Djassa lives in a small house in the ghettos of Abidjan ** with his sister Ange. They are looked after by older brother Mike, a Lieutenant for the local police crime squad. Adults now, Mike still checks in on his siblings who he has helped raise since childhood.
The ghetto is a rough place — as it is — but life seems generally ok if you can put up with the heat, the horseflies, and the constant background noise. Mike makes a decent living, Tony scrapes by selling cigarettes, and Ange works at a hairdresser. The community seem happy enough — friends get together to play cards and to drink and to sleep with prostitutes. There are a few song and dance interludes, which despite not really being importance to the story were the highlights of the first hour. Enter 25-year-old Tony, bored and angsty. He has a chip on his shoulder and wants people to remember his name. One night while fag-mongering in the back alleys he barges onto a card game and a run of luck nets him some quick cash and new friends. According to The Narrator, this begins Tony’s run up the criminal ladder.
Trouble kicks in when Tony’s luck runs out and he resorts to gambling away his wares. His new friends don’t seem so friendly now. Worse still, Ange trades in her boring hairdresser gig for a lucrative spot in the local prostitution circuit. After a particularly good night she pops into the corner shop where she is recognised by a john who accuses her of stealing his watch earlier that week. As the tension calms a bit, hotheaded Tony arrives, the situation boils over, and he shanks the john and races off into the night with sister in tow. The following morning, upon hearing that the stabbee has died, Tony freaks out and is seemingly devastated. But inexplicably the next thing he does is go for a joyride in a cab with a couple of friends and the trio proceed to hold him up at gun point. One thing leads to another and older brother Mike leads an investigation that ends in a shootout with Tony dead, fulfilling the Narrator’s earlier warning about people coming and going but the ghetto remaining the same.
Where the story fails is… well, the story. There isn’t enough to propel it forward, and the long stretches of what should be quiet, reflective moments don’t fill the space as intended. If ‘Djassa‘ was a 20-minute short I’d heap praise on it for the layered Shakespearean elements, the fun musical interludes, and the heart and ambition despite crippling lack of budget and resources. At 70 minutes, the ambition part is still there, obviously, but until the final act arrived there was a constant queasy feeling that it was going to collapse in on itself at any moment. The Narrator infuses it with a much needed vibrancy but he’s essentially redundant — whatever info he throws our way, we’ve either already just seen or we’re just about to. Visually there are enough pretty images but whether it was a stylistic choice or a logistical necessity, the entire movie is composed of invasive close up shots of one of our three principles, rarely straying off to see anything beyond, giving us little context to their surroundings, to the people who inhabit their world, or the reasons behind any of their actions. The subtitling added confusion as long passages went without translation. The cast seemed to be mostly amateurs or non-actors who did a fair job and who had fun with the experience. Konate played the Angry Young Man very well, and showed a lot of range. Adelaide Ouattara as Ange was hit and miss — in the quieter moments where she wasn’t reaching for high drama she was the best thing on screen. The real standout here, though, was Mamadou Diomande as elder brother Lt. Mike, who carried the emotional brunt of the story and who made the best of a few unfortunately, unintentionally goofy scenes. When it’s revealed that his brother is the killer he’s been searching for, the anguish on his face is heart-wrenching. It was a powerful performance, and I’m hoping Mamadou finds his way onto the big screen again before too long.
Despite all this, the filmmakers should be proud of what they put together and I’d be interested to see what Mr. Solo comes up with next.
* (I’m hoping that is his real name, not a pseudonym.)
** (The largest city in the Ivory Coast — thanks wikipedia!)