L’HISTOIRE DE SOULAYMANE (Cannes 2024) – Review by Clotilde Chinnici

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Written and directed by Boris Lojkine, L’Histoire de Souleymane is the director’s feature-length debut. The film premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard portion of the festival where it won both the Jury Prize Award and the Best Performance for Abou Sangare who plays the main character Souleymane.

Set in Paris over the course of 48 hours that feel like an entire lifetime, L’Histoire de Souleymane follows the titular Souleymane as he prepares for his asylum application interview. As we quickly find out, Souleymane has recently arrived in France from Guinea as is attempting to secure legal residency. Every day, he pedals through the streets of Paris all day and late into the evening as an undocumented delivery worker. He sleeps in homeless shelters at night, at least when he’s able to make it to the bus in time to get there to check in. In order to maximize his chances of getting his asylum status recognized, Souleymane is paying a broker who convinces him to memorize a fake story because, as the broker advises, his real story may not be strong enough to convince the committee.

Souleymane is reluctant to lie but the broker is adamant that he will not obtain asylum unless he learns every single detail about a fake story to which he can’t relate, but “tells it like real facts.” And so, every day and every night, Souleymane repeats the dates, moments, and lines he had to commit to his memory and soon enough, his fake story starts to feel like a performance within the performance. When we watch L’Histoire de Souleymane, there is a sense that Souleymane has to become the “perfect refugee” – with a history of involvement in politics, prison, and torture – in order to be accepted by the state and the system behind the asylum-seeking process. It is almost as if those coming from Guinea – or any other African country for that matter – as immigrants can only fit into one acceptable category and one possible story, the one the broker has Souleymane repeat over and over.

For the majority of the film, we don’t know much about Souleymane other than his fake story. This is where the performativity of the entire process comes into focus: by establishing himself as a political refugee, Souleymane has become one through the fake documents he acquires for his asylum application and, therefore, before the French state, and even in the eyes of the audience. That is until the very end of L’Histoire de Souleymane when his real story comes to life in a very moving and heartbreaking scene. The authenticity of his real-life experience stands in stark contrast with the fictional story he had been telling, thus making it even more powerful and significant.

The film delivers an important and necessary critique on the asylum-seeking process in France that treats immigrants and refugees as objects and numbers to fit into a scheme rather human beings who should be treated with empathy and respect. L’Histoire de Souleymane is critical of the institutional process behind it as well as of the so-called middle-men brokers who profit and benefit from such a complicated and dehumanizing process. Similarly, the movie shines a light on the critical working conditions of delivery app drivers who have very little job security, protection, or pay.

L’Histoire de Souleymane opens our eyes to a reality that is often hidden and yet ever present in our current political life. Interestingly enough, the real story behind the movie is even more shocking and heartbreaking than the film itself as Abou Sangare was just refused his visa to remain in France after living in the country for 10 years. While the movie is set in France, its poignant commentary can apply to many other European countries too and the inhumane way in which they treat immigrants and refugees.

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Clotilde Chinnici

Clotilde's love for film began at a very young age with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first film she ever saw. Her passion for films truly sparked with Star Wars and Harry Potter. After graduating with a BA in Film, Clotilde started working in film production and entertainment journalism. Although most of her time is occupied by watching films, writing and talking about them to anyone who will listen, Clotilde enjoys reading and baking in her free time.