The protagonist’s confrontation with his past barbarity is far and away the most compelling part of Out of My Hand.
Out of My Hand, directed by Takeshi Fukunaga. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, on November 6. The director will be present for a Q&A after the screening.
By Paul Dervis
Out of My Hand is just the second foreign production feature film shot in Liberia, and the first to be made in association with the Liberia Movie Union. Those circumstances alone make it an important project. Here’s hoping this bodes well for the African nation’s creative industry in the future. But the impression left by this outing is that though the filmmakers may have won the war, they have lost an early battle. This film fails to engage.
The major problem is that first time writer/director Takeshi Fukunaga doesn’t build a dramatic arc in this piece. He fell in love with his images and didn’t pay sufficient attention to generating the storyline’s structure and movement. Even if he was creating a documentary out this material he would have needed to make choices of what to keep and what to cut…choices he either can’t or won’t do here.
Example. The film opens with several minutes of watching a rubber plantation ‘tapper’ cut into trees and collect the slow-moving sap. At first, eying the process is pretty interesting, but after a while, the point is made: this is a tedious, numbing job. However, it becomes a tedious, numbing scene to watch. Not a good start.
Let’s jump to the end. No fears, there is no need for a spoiler alert. In the final four minutes of the film, after the story’s denouement, we watch our lead character change a tire. No kidding…he changes a tire on his taxi! Now I realize that this scene attempts to work on several levels…i.e. Life goes on, be careful what you wish for, beware the crushing of the human spirit, etc., etc., etc. But, really, couldn’t the director have found a more compelling way of dramatizing these ideas? One can only hope he does so in future films.
The story follows a group of men in Liberia who barely subsist working for local plantation owners. Tired of living in abject poverty, the laborers make a collective decision and initiate a strike which they cannot win. Their wives do not support their action; the men resort to pretending to go to work, but their partners see through the ruse. Finally, the workers break ranks and go back to slaving away at their monotonous jobs…accept for one man, Cisco. Cisco has a relative who bolted for New York, and he has been convinced that it is the land of milk and honey. Leaving his wife and children behind, he embarks for the New World, where he is convinced that great riches await.
Surprise, surprise, the dream is a myth. He works tireless hours in Manhattan as an illegal cab driver, toting around countless unsympathetic bosses in the back seat of his taxi. A good deal of his time is spent wading through the underbelly of the city. And, to exacerbate his workday dilemmas, he is confronted with a man from his past…they were both children soldiers and were involved in some of the atrocities committed in their homeland.
This is where the story should have developed further. Cisco’s confrontation with his past barbarity is far and away the most compelling part of Out of My Hand. Yet it isn’t even broached until the last half hour of the film. Had much of the first hour been whittled down and this element, which generates an ominous cloud over the protagonist, been expanded, the film would been a true, moving drama. But it is too little, too late.
Though Fukunaga is credited as the writer, Out of My Hand has the distinct feel of an improvised film. It is as if the actors were told what the scene was about and then left to create the dialogue themselves. This improvisational approach has given birth to a number of successful movies. Yet all but one of the principle actors here are making their film debuts…and the lack of experience shows. Aside from Bishop Blay as Cisco, the rest of the cast come across as amateurs, which most likely they are. Blay supplies some very fine moments, but they are surrounded by some painfully mundane scenes.
There is the promise of a powerful story here…one which would have been gripping. Unfortunately, it slipped out of the filmmaker’s hand.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.