Reviewed at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival.
With a title like “I Am Slave,” one can reasonably expect neither subtlety or uplift from this true-life drama about the plight of one young Sudanese girl who is taken from her village in and sold into serving a family of Arabs in contemporary England. And for about two-thirds of “I Am Slave” that presumption would seem accurate, as “Last King of Scotland” screenwriter Jeremy Brock has no objection to leaving the caps lock on at times when depicting the particularly brutal treatment that befalls the village princess-turned-urban slave Malia (Wunmi Mosaku). Nor does director Gabriel Range, who last caused a stir in Toronto in 2006 with the premiere of the faux assassination of President Bush drama “Death of a President,” have any qualms about pushing buttons.
But patience is a virtue, for both the audience and Malia, as much of the heavyhandedness serves a purpose when Malia comes to realize her enslavement is far more psychological than physical. Worn down by years of sleeping in the cramped corners of the home of Hiam Abbass’ cruel mistress in Khartoum and then the mansion of her slightly more empathetic cousin (Lubna Azabal) in London, Malia has no contact with the outside world and is ordered to look away from anyone in her respective homes.
She has no idea that her father (“The Limits of Control”‘s Isaach De Bankolé) is out searching for her. The whippings by garden hose and the even more painful tongue lashings by Abbass’ and Azabal’s mistresses still pale in comparison to the loneliness endured by Malia and without any money or a place to go, the fear of the outside is significantly greater than staying inside the gates of her captors.
According to one of the film’s end cards, this is more common than one would think: 5,000 slaves are believed to be held captive in England with an additional 20,000 existing in Sudan, and the film itself is based on the story of Mende Nazer, who became a human rights activist after serving in the home of the Sudanese diplomat. Even without that basis in reality, the premise of “I Am Slave” is jarring: Malia is unable to use the phone, exit the house or have any free will beyond the confines of her small cot as cars pass by the front of the house and the world moves on without her.
The wide-eyed Mosaku’s natural stoicism cuts through some of the more manipulative aspects of Range and Brock’s storytelling – even though one expects Malia to befriend the family’s driver to plant the seeds for a likely escape, she doesn’t really warm to him, and even though there are cutaways to her father journeying to the big city, it’s obvious enough that if there’s ever to be change in her life, she’s going to be the one achieve it.
All of this is done with a modern slickness that set it apart from a Lifetime movie, but there’s a thin line as far as tearjerkers of this nature are concerned. “Fish Tank” cinematographer Robbie Ryan lends his sharp eye to the proceedings, which rids the film of any sentimental glow, and in spite of some far-fetched dramatic scenes to move the story forward, Brock has a good ear for dialogue to make the whole disgusting situation almost seem sanitary to the characters who have lost their humanity long ago. (When the family driver encourages Malia to leave, he actually emphasizes the fact that she’s a “nobody.”)
“I Am Slave” also flirts with losing its humanity in the face of becoming too much of a movie, but by its end, it moves you in a way that only movies can and brings to light a reality that sadly couldn’t be made up.