Languidly drifting through the dusty, deadly byways of a fictional francophone African nation, Port Djema is a maddening but nonetheless effective riff on promises and helplessness. Hermetically sealed from any local internal realities by virtue of its almost exclusive focus on white angst, Djema opens with an offscreen gunshot and ends with a mute photograph: a black boy whose snapshot cutes demand that he be saved. In between, Pierre (Jean-Yves Dubois), a French surgeon, arrives in Port Djema with the photograph, which had been sent by Antoine, an old buddy who’s been killed while tending to the victims of civil war. Trying to fulfill a promise he’d made to Antoine, Pierre decides to find the boy and take him back to France. Portrayed as more clueless than heroic, Pierre’s quest for at least one happy ending lands him in the
expected nightmare. Port
Djema is at the brink of collapse and everywhere Pierre turns
he faces conflicting needs
and questions, from the
omnipresent wounded to the mystery of his friend’s death to the needle-in-a-haystack
problem of the boy in the photo.
Djema indulges in a familiar, lax political shorthand (by way of irony it offers a hardened French intelligence operative trying to do good), and its evocative, meditative visuals sometimes exoticize its locale (director Eric Heumann’s long takes slowly become alienating, Africa as faraway-seeming as Mars). In the end, though, Port Djema’s distance becomes an unexpected strength. Pierre is neither a savior nor a villain, displaying qualities of courage and cowardice in believable measure. He’s forced to give up on the possibility of doing good in favor of stumbling lost through Port Djema, clutching the photograph, but instead of feeling like a surrender, his admission of helplessness feels like a first step toward understanding the flesh and blood people in front of him.