It’s a shame that our contemporary film exhibition apparatus has no place for medium-length works like Alain Kassanda’s Trouble Sleep. At 40 minutes, it’s too long to be a “short” or otherwise appended to another feature film, too short to be distributed through regular channels, and instead seems destined instead to fall through the cracks or relegated to a streaming service (although we should be thankful that OVID is giving the film a platform at all). A terrific bit of documentary portraiture, Trouble Sleep isn’t attempting to educate viewers so much as asking them to simply look. There are no facts and figures scrolling across the frame, no pat thesis statement, but instead a humble emphasis on people themselves: faces, movements, gestures, the human body moving through congested urban spaces.
Taking its name from a Fela Kutie song, Kassanda’s film slips between two primary modes: in the first, we see two Nigerian men navigate their jobs as taxi drivers in the city of Ibadan. The second mode is more elusive, using a spoken-word voiceover and several interludes set to music as interstitials that transform the film into a kind of city symphony. Kassanda is clearly invested in these men’s labor; the first, Ken, is introduced bemoaning the fact that he has a college degree yet cannot find work in his field, forcing him to become a taxi man. His mentor is older and more experienced, and gives a detailed breakdown of the grueling day-to-day routine of the taxi driver: one must retrieve the car from the owner, pay off various union members who impose a daily tax, deal with corrupt cops via bribes, and then return the car — along with most of their gross pay — to the owner. Whatever money comes in is quickly redistributed through an entire network set up to milk these men for all they have. On the other hand is Akin, who works for one of these unions. He details his own difficulties in dealing with taxi drivers and the demands of taxing the automobiles — he must collect the fee and mark the cab with chalk while weaving through busy traffic on foot. He, too, must deliver much of his daily wages to the higher-ups, frequently leaving him with a pittance despite the demanding nature of the job.
There, as elsewhere, capitalism is a complex structure of bureaucracy and middlemen feeding off the labor of actual workers. But not all is miserable: music and vibrant colors abound, revealing a bustling city pulsing with energy, matched by Kassanda’s roving camera. In their downtime, the men drink and commiserate, the talk quickly turning to calls for revolution. Days turn to nights, and the bright, sun-dappled cinematography turns darker and more expressionistic. Much of Kassanda’s artistry comes through in his editing, his ability to juggle multiple perspectives while maintaining a quick rhythmic pulse to the proceedings. But the night slows down, the dark shadows and chiaroscuro lighting recalling the digital works of the master himself, Pedro Costa. Akin smokes, illuminated by an open flame, as he relates a recurring dream in which he loses his chalk and must find someone to share theirs with him. Worn down by stress, the man finds little respite or solidarity even in sleep. Yet, by weaving the stories of drivers and tax authorities together, Kassanda identifies both as vital parts of the city’s texture whilst revealing their shared hardships. Some reviews have suggested that Kassanda “doesn’t take sides” or is merely an “observer” to these events, but Trouble Sleep is, in fact, a deeply political film. We are all in the belly of this machine, in one way or another.
You can currently stream Trouble Sleep on OVID.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 27