Sunday, March 27, 2016

CIFF ’16: Gold Coast

There’s nothing like a little colonialism to put some hair on your chest. Arguably, a naïve botanist like Wulff Frederik Wulff could use a little seasoning, but instead of adventure, he confronts the Conradian heart of darkness in Daniel Dencik’s Gold Coast (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Cleveland International Film Festival.

The idealistic Wulff (an amalgam of historical Danish colonial adventurers and civil servants) has been chartered by the King of Denmark to establish coffee plantations in Danish Guinea. The Danish colonies are struggling economically in the wake of the Schimmelmann edict banning the Danish slave trade. However, there is still a plentiful labor supply, since ownership of slaves has not been abolished.

Of course, Wulff’s reasonably good intentions are quickly dashed upon the rocks of reality. Although the ailing Governor Mørch is a man of integrity, real power is wielded by the ruthless Councilor Dall and his thuggish ally, Herbst, who together embody the worst of Europe. Plagued with constant sabotage from the Ashanti, Wulff seeks the intercession of notorious trader Henrik Richter, who clearly has no reservations when it comes to keeping his fellow Africans in bondage. Although Richter is initially helpful, Wulff will remember the man and his brand when he encounters a band of illicitly trafficked slaves bearing the mark.

Dencik (formerly a documentarian known for Expeditionto the End of the World) could not possibly be any more outraged by colonial era exploitation. However, Gold Coast is somewhat (probably accidentally) politically incorrect, starting with Richter and the forthright depiction African participation in the slave trade. Most surprisingly, the film’s only truly sympathetic characters are the much maligned Christian missionaries, who came to save souls, but also want to break the slaves’ chains. Gold Coast is a woozy, steamy, sometimes hallucinatory exploration of human nature, but it has a more forceful narrative drive than Chantal Akerman’s adaptation of Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly. Still, if you like the earlier film, you will should appreciate Coast for its similarly mirage-like vibe.

Scruffy-headed Jakob Oftebro is convincingly earnest and guileless. Frankly, it is not so distressing to watch his lessons in how the world works in its wilder, more natural state. Anders Heinrichsen makes quite a sinister cold fish as Dall. In limited screen time, Wakefield Ackuaku projects a notably malevolent élan as Richter. Somewhat problematically, the rest of the native populace are basically extras in a story of Danes behaving badly.

Yet, Denmark deserves credit for its historical progressiveness. After all, they did indeed ban the slave trade in 1792, after the State of Vermont passed abolition but well before any other European power. It wasn’t a sweeping emancipation, but it was a crucial early step. Of course, enforcement was a trickier proposition back then.

Finding the right tone for a colonial-era historical drama is no easy feat either. Frankly, Gold Coast is probably too dream-like for its intended purposes, but Dencik clearly conveys a sense of how heat, humidity, isolation, and alienation combine to break down mind and spirit. It is a film that earns credit for its ambition even when it trips over its own feet. Messy and inconsistently effective from scene to scene, but weirdly lulling as a total viewing experience, Gold Coast is recommended for the hardest of hardcore cineastes when it screens this Thursday (3/31) and Friday (4/1) as part of this year’s Cleveland International Film Festival.