By Vanessa Martinez | Shadow and Act February 23, 2012 at 6:28PM
I finally caught Leila Djansi’s sophomore feature film effort Sinking Sands last night. Unfortunately, it wasn’t available through Netflix; I opted to rent it via Amazon on Demand.
The Ghanaian psychological drama, which screened at last year’s Pan African and Cannes film festivals, was the winner of several awards at the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) including best actress and screenplay.
The film tells a story of Pabi and Jima, played by newcomer Ama K. Abrebese and Jimmy Jean-Louis (Toussaint L’Ouverture), a young couple in love who begin a life together as newlyweds.
Given the film’s domestic violence subject matter, I feared that it would veer into cliché hysterics and over the top melodrama. Thankfully it doesn’t due to the performances, especially by Abrebese in the role of Jima's long-suffering wife. She embodies Pabi in a nuanced yet heartfelt and compelling performance; Abrebese, in her acting debut, truly anchors this film.
Pabi, a teacher and aspiring school principal, is in love with her husband Jima and hoping for a family. You see, when we first watch Jima propose to Pabi and taking no for an answer, you get the gut feeling that, although she accepted, something isn’t quite right. Also, the scene when Pabi catches Jima flirting with a co-worker when she pays him a visit at his bank job, adds up to that uneasy feeling.
Aside from that, Jima seems to be in love with Pabi; Jean-Louis oozes charm in his role – at least initially. It’s easy to believe him. He’s handsome, funny, successful, and yes, maybe he was flirting with a co-worker, but, perhaps it was harmless; he was obviously committed to her.
While Pabi is preparing a meal and Jima is washing the dishes (a short amusing sequence), Pabi has an accident which causes Jima severe burns. When Jima’s face is unveiled after two months of recovery in the hospital, we see a horrible disfiguration on the left side on his face. I found it hard to believe second degree burns would cause such scarring. The make-up work took me out of the realism of the film, but I was soon immersed back in as the sequences of domestic violence began to unravel.
Pabi is guilt-ridden and distraught. She can’t concentrate at work. She needs time off from teaching to tend to her husband. She stays committed to Jima even when he begins taking out his anger and frustration on her. He apologizes after the first time he hits her. You want to believe it won’t happen again; although, you already know better in these situations. Both Jean-Louis and Abrebese showcase their characters transformations convincingly. Through this domestic abuse cycle; you can’t help but sympathize with Pabi’s dilemma – well, more like fell sorry for her. It’s hard for her to walk away; she knows she doesn’t deserve the abuse, but she’s also manipulated by her husband’s dire circumstances; she forgives the abuse because of feelings of guilt. Jean-Louis performance works here; he's able to convey remorse believably. The actor is able to exude a certain sensibility and tenderness in key scenes; hence, regardless of the obvious judgment against Jima, it makes Pabi's choices to endure this situation more plausible.
Ultimately, as it happens in life when it comes to domestic abuse situations, the abuse intensifies and becomes a matter of life or death. At a point of the film, the cycle becomes redundant; although, it never loses momentum until its unnerving culmination.
The rest of the supporting cast does a fine job in elevating this film; Nigerian actor Yemi Blaq brings integrity and subtlety to his character of Pabi’s doctor, Dr. Matthews. Pabi starts seeking the comfort and affection under this doctor’s care. The characters have palpable chemistry, one of the most enjoyable and intriguing aspects of the film. Despite their mutual attraction however, I appreciated the filmmaker’s choice not to succumb into a subplot of a predictable affair.
It is not a perfect film; I found myself questioning some of the filmmaker’s motivations. Did the film imply that Pabi’s husband Jima turned abusive as a coping mechanism to the psychological effects of his physical disfiguration? Although that is not implicit, there wasn’t any evidence of abuse history in Jima’s past, especially when he’s confronted by his father regarding Pabi.
To director Djansi’s credit, she’s crafted some well-orchestrated sequences here: the abuse and remorse/forgiveness, fights and love-making/reconciliations. The film effectively shows the destructive progression of a marriage due to abuse, and how women can lose themselves completely in these relationships. Ultimately, you will appreciate that there’s definitely a heroine in this story, and a message of strength and self-sufficiency here, masterfully delivered by Abrebese. In the hands of a less competent actress; the film could have easily failed.
When I finished watching the film last night I thought, “hmm.. that was alright.” This morning on my drive to work however, I realized just how thoroughly engaged and entertained I had been through the duration of the film; I then thought to myself, “damn, that movie was good!”
You are highly encouraged to check out the film for yourself. Besides Amazon on Demand, Sinking Sands is available via Itunes or for purchase through the film’s website.
Here’s the trailer: