Screens at CIFF: 10/12 & 10/19 & 10/21
World premiere: 11 September, 2012, Toronto International Film Festival

There are so many examples across the years of a culture under-represented in mainstream art forms making itself known through the means of a crime drama set on the mean streets of a poor neighborhood that Burn It Up Djassa should be literally incapable of making any kind of impression on anybody, especially since with a feverish 70-minute running time, it really doesn't take the time to establish any setting outside of the bare minimum required to functionally tell its story. At the same time, this mercilessly stripped-down focus gives the film one of the most appeallingly odd storytelling styles that I've encountered in quite a long time: it is literally presented to us as an anecdote, related by somebody who saw some of it and heard really good accounts of the rest. Which is to say, who the hell knows? Certainly, our unnamed onscreen narrator (Mohamed Bamba) is as excited as all hell to tell his story, regardless of whether a single word of it is the sober, God's honest truth, and the vigorous animation with which he moves around, and with the camera races around keeping up with him, immediately gives the film a punchy "hanging out, swapping shit" vibe that benefits it immensely, turning its sparseness into an asset and making it feel okay that it all plays more like a series of vignettes than an actual movie plotline.

That camera, incidentally, belongs to director Lonseome Solo (which is, astoundingly, an assumed name) and cinematographer Delphine Jaquet both of them also among the four screenwriters. They use it largely good effect in capturing the Wassakara neighborhood of Abjidan, former capital of Ivory Coast, employing the usual grab-bag of documentary filmmaking techniques (handheld camera, zooms, talk-head close-ups; it is in fact a very close-up heavy film) in concert with their largely non-professional cast to capture something very rough and raw about the ghetto (the word "djassa" means "ghetto" in the slang dialect that dominates the film). That said, with so little time to spare either onscreen or during production - Burn It Up Djassa enjoyed a meager 11-day shooting schedule - little energy is spilled in depicting the setting, and this can be rightfully considered a disappointment, though the film never really claims to be a depiction of Wassakara, but only a single story taking place in Wassakara to a single person who is never claimed as a representative of a broader culture or the like. Remember, this is an anecdote being told by an enthusiastic, but hardly omnipotent narrator; he's hardly apt to stop and say, "and here's the part where this sad tale is plainly representative of the greater forces at work in our society".

The subject of the film is Tony (Abdoul Karim Konaté), a cheerful rake who lives in a somewhat nicer part of town, but travels into the ghetto to make money selling cigarettes and playing cards (it's suggested in dialogue, but not clarified why, that the life of a cigarette seller is held to be something contemptible). He travels under the name Dabagaou, and is widely liked for his cool attitude and freewheeling life, even if it takes some shadiness to get to that point.

Solo and company offer the smallest possible amount of information to sell this idea before dropping the bottom out. Tony has a sister, Ange (Adelaïde Ouattara) trying, without much success, to make money as a prostitute in the same ghetto. One night, after she's off duty, a man harasses her in a bar, and Tony is so enraged that he leaps at the man, stabbing him and killing him. The cop assigned to the case is, in a fit of ugly coincidence, Tony and Ange's older brother Mike (Mamadou Diomandé), who quickly determines that "Dabagaou" is the killer, though that name seems attached to a figure of myth more than a real person, and it would certainly never cross his mind that his siblings - neither of whom permits him any glimpse into their somewhat sordid lives - are the main players in the crime.

Combining grubby cinéma vérité technique with the moral tragedy of a '30s gangster picture, Burn It Up Djassa doesn't offer much if anything in the way of novelty or surprise, outside of the way that the narrator's recounting of events reframes the events we see as something like re-enactments or pantomimes. What it does have is energy: giddy, relentless energy, most of it centered in Konaté's terrific performance as Tony. Sometimes, non-actors really do have that unaffected immediacy that's supposed to be so wonderful in neo-realism and is usually kind of strained and awful; and this performance is a joyful blast of youth energy, an insufficiently grown-up young man playing things really smoothly until the second that he's not trying to impress anyone, and he becomes outright giddy about his life and his achievements; or, as the film turns darker, he becomes cocksure and proud and aggressive, none of them terribly admirable qualities (particularly given how the film heavily foreshadows the bad end he comes to, so it registers as ironic), but played so lustily that it's hard not to find it magnetic.

Putting us in a position to feel that energy is really the only thing the movie is about: implicitly, it's there in the opening narrative monologue, and there's no moment in the rest of the film where it seems to be about anything else but watching Tony and being dazzled by his headstrong charisma, for both good and ill. I'm not usually one for character studies at the expense of anything else, but when you've got a character this electrifying, and a film that makes such small demands on your time, it's awfully easy to give into it.