“A sailor’s life is like that. We
don’t see our sons grow up. When we come back on land, we find a woman who’s
remade, rearranged her life in her own way, and sons who’ve become men.”
These are the words of Traore (Issaka Sawadogo), a black sailor who becomes embroiled in a heated controversy aboard a battered Russian cargo ship, called the Diego Star. With over 18 years of experience navigating the sea, he’s the target of a ship malfunction that he didn’t cause, and is pressured to take the fall for it by the ship's captain.
It’s a cold, focused film, absent of music and sentimentalism. We are anchored by the mounting frustration in Traore, who becomes increasingly isolated when the ship is towed to the nearest shipyard for repairs. Writer/Director Frédérick Pelletier carefully addresses workplace exploitation, with fresh insights into individual self-determination, playing with the “heroic whistle-blower” portrayal we’ve seen in other films. Immigrant workers here aren’t so much brave as they are fed up and tired of not receiving compensation for their labor. Traore won’t take the fall for the ship’s systemic failures and endeavors to tell the truth when the authorities step in, but at what cost?
Shot in a snowy Quebec, Traore clings to metaphorical warmth- photographs of family members in the Ivory Coast, a lonely church, and the baby of a solitary single mother he boards with, Fanny (Chloe Bourgeois). She’s a lunch lady for the shipyard, who takes Traore in to receive money for housing a sailor.
Their relationship becomes an exploration of the areas of Traore that we don’t see in the film- his sons, his family, and his home in Abidjan, to which he fosters a warm estrangement. He willingly helps care for Fanny’s son, even babysitting while she goes out to party. It is a smartly written relationship that does not rely on usual contrivances of instant sexual chemistry or easy conflict. In him, she sees a friend and ally. He sees the same.
Issaka Sawadogo gives a nuanced performance that builds frustration and empathy in the viewer by offering no easy answers. Having appealed to a port official with the true story of the ship’s malfunction and still ostracized without pay, he sits in a dimly lit bar, roughly wiping tears from his face. He isn’t sobbing, but he’s reached a state of definite uncertainty.
The film’s sense
of place only elevates this. The snow overwhelms; it is part of the very fabric
of the characters and the story. It isolates and frustrates, it makes
everything difficult- to walk, to run, to breathe. It is a great complement to
the situation that Pelletier has created in the film.
This is no Captain Phillips or Erin Brockovich tale. There is no hero or redemption to be had, only singular resistance that comes with a high price. In the end, I wondered if Traore would think it was all worth it.