Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: Trouble Sleep, Organised Chaos
There are few things as pure as a city stirring to life. In the opening sequence of Trouble Sleep, French-Congolese filmmaker Alain Kassanda does a terrific job of capturing the Nigerian city of Ibadan at dawn, the various sights, sounds, and energy coalescing into a potent snapshot that hints at beauty in its raw form. The city wakes when the people do, and Ibadan’s bus park is the centre of the action: a meeting point for an ever-shifting swirling sea of humanity where everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere and no one stops to stare at the strangely ordinary sight of so many lives zipping by with every passing second.
Two road transport union workers share an early smoke before attacking the day; a woman dressed in Ankara print alights from a bus; a waste management authority official attempts to sweep the highway clean; a man clutches his beads prayerfully while shuffling off to his private concerns. If a city’s residents are what give it its character, Trouble Sleep—which takes its title from an abbreviation of the timeless Fela Kuti tune, “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am”—is particularly interested in the working-class strivers.
Kassanda’s gaze is trained on Fred, a local university graduate who, having been unable to secure proper employment, has turned to taxi-driving. This would seem like a straightforward choice, but nothing about contemporary living in Nigeria is simple. Unfavourable economic conditions and structural obstacles make it feel like everything is designed to frustrate the law-abiding citizen. As a driver-mentor dispassionately reels out all of the challenges Fred is sure to run into, it might sound like more effort than it is worth.
Yet driving a rickety taxi seems soft compared to the work which Akin undertakes as a member of the road transport workers union, making his living by taxing people like Fred. It is honest work, but a role that much of Nigerian society frowns upon. Trouble Sleep succeeds in humanising Akin and his colleagues, providing the film with context by letting the subjects speak for themselves. And boy, do they have a lot to say. Kassanda presents his characters not as villains in everyone else’s story, but as hardworking fellows doing what they need to in order to survive, even if that means taking their trauma home with them. At one point, Akin says that collecting taxes is “like pulling money from the lion’s belly”, and later discourages an excited relative from following in his footsteps.
If Fred and Akin are the two primary characters in Trouble Sleep, then Ibadan is certainly the third. Domiciled in the southwest, Nigeria’s third most populous city may not compare in infrastructural development to the great cities of the world, but it does have its unique charms. Kassanda’s camera observes this beauty and captures the brown hues—from the rusty zinc roofs, to the wall paintings, dusty earth and ancient taxis—that are characteristic of the city. Richly layered, Trouble Sleep is an intimate portrait of a city at odds with itself and with its residents. A passage from Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco—a novel written in 1992 that is quoted in the film—observes that a ”city is not to be taken, it’s to be known.” This is advice that Kassanda takes to heart and puts to practical use, approaching his filming of Ibadan not with reverence, but with a genuine curiosity. It might look like chaos on the streets but an unmistakable sense of order is present here. Organised chaos perhaps.
Wilfred Okiche is one of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space. He has attended critic programs in Durban, Berlin, Rotterdam, and Locarno.