To even comprehend slavery is a challenge beyond us. It seems such an obvious evil that it’s all too easy to paint the perpetrators as sneering stage villains, or to shrug and bat it away as a different time. And yet many an empire has been built off the back of the slave trade, many a geo-political and social problem caused by this abhorrent practice. Daniel Dencik’s feature debut tries to tackle Denmark’s colonial past, venturing into a heart of darkness all of the Danes making in Guinea circa 1836. It’s a haunting film, wonderful for so long that it’s all the more disappointing when the closing half hour floats away.
The threat of narrative disintegration is never far at any point. Ostensibly the story of an idealistic and soon to be disenchanted young botanist sent to grow a coffee plantation, it morphs into one man’s journey from unthinking disregard to passionate moral opposition. Oblivious to the plight of slaves a world away from Denmark, Wulff (Jakob Oftebro) is unaware and uninterested in the illicit trade carried out despite the official outlawing in 1792.
Even this (blatantly flouted) law is hardly solace to the natives of Danish Guinea. Many are still slaves, they just can’t be sold. On arrival, Wulff is given a team to work the plantation, and a personal slave in the shape of eleven year old Lumpa (John Aggrey). He’s put off by the casual violence of the local Danes at the trading post, but not enough to do anything about it. Wulff’s thoughts are ill-defined at this stage, believing the natives to be a lesser people, but enlightened enough to put it down to environment rather than genetics.Not that he cares much about changing it. All he wants to do is play gardener and explorer, spending hours in the forest seeking out rare plants. Scenes pass by at a measured pace, drawing heavily on a Terrence Malick aesthetic as striking cinematography combines with a wonderfully affecting score. With music switching between orchestral build-up and Tangerine Dream like delirium, Wulff’s love of nature gradually shifts to the people as he awakens to their true plight. This realisation is the beginning of the end for the botanist, and the film.
Turning active campaigner, he leads a force out to arrest a local slaver, the ensuing siege a chaotic mess. There are no cheap save-the-day heroics nor does Dencik lose the irony of a slave army fighting and dying against a slaver’s personal army. He does however lose grip of his narrative. Always prone to float off for extended spells of woozy visuals, Wulff’s final conversion and battle against his own despicable countrymen, far happier beating locals and engaging in violent orgies, loses focus, drifting away from the themes he has been grappling with so effectively.
The only thing left to admire is Oftebro’s incredible physical transformation. His naïve and angular face wastes away until he barely resembles a living person, never mind Wulff. That’s what going up against the commercial interests of slavery gets him. On his own he loses, as he always would. But Dencik shows that when the problem is no longer remote, it becomes much harder to ignore. If only we might heed that message and stop imagining we’ve banished all our demons to the past.