(The Netherlands 2022; Dir: Douwe Dijkstra)

Neighbour Abdi

Green Screen Gringo comes into his own

review by Vladan Petković

Neighbour Abdi

original title: Buurman Abdi

length: 29

year of production: 2022

country of production: The Netherlands

director: Douwe Dijkstra

production: Valk Productions

director of photography: Douwe Dijkstra

editing: Douwe Dijkstra

sound: Douwe Dijkstra, Rob Peters

music: Rob Peters

cast: Abdiwahab Ali, Sharif Nuur, Ahmed Dualeh, Mohamed Teeri, Saed Dualeh, Mohammed Mohamud, Henk Kinket, Douwe Dijkstra

festivals: Locarno Film Festival 2022, Film Fest Gent 2022, Ji.hlava International Documentary Festival 2022, Uppsala Short Film Festival 2022, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur 2022, PÖFF Shorts 2022

© images: Neighbour Abdi (Douwe Dijkstra)

When Dutch filmmaker and visual artist Douwe Dijkstra's first short film, ‘Démontable’, appeared on the festival circuit late in 2014, it was a sensation of sorts. It won a special mention at Clermont-Ferrand and I remember the whole team of the festival I was programming at the time, the now defunct Kratkofil in Banja Luka, immediately agreed this should be our opening film. We were all aware that the special effects technology, at the time, was advanced as never before. We had seen various making-ofs from Hollywood blockbusters, but here was a short film that showed us exactly how it's done, with wit, spirit and style.

Dijkstra's films are always simultaneously making-ofs, as he lifts the curtain on movie magic that employs green screen. In ‘Démontable’, a war is taking place on a kitchen table as the invisible protagonist is having coffee. Aeroplanes and helicopters wheeze by, soldiers run, crawl and shoot, explosions pop all over. In the second half of the film, we see the filmmaker making the set and actors putting on war fatigues and doing their thing in front of the green screen.

In 2016's ‘Green Screen Gringo’, Dijkstra travels to Brazil and, carrying a portable green screen, walks around São Paulo, which is embroiled in the political crisis of the Dilma-Temer era. Here, he quickly, often in the same shot, alternates between what is made as an illusion on the green screen and his own presence in the scene. The social-political side is very present, through short statements from on- and off-screen protagonists, as well as a couple of touching and occasionally symbolic scenes showing support for the country's marginalised — the indigenous and Black people and LGBTQIA+ population. However, the very image of a tall, white man invisible except for his bare feet behind the green screen, makes the proceedings feel light, even if there is a clear feeling of turmoil bubbling under the surface. This was the film when I started thinking of Dijkstra as of “Green Screen Gringo". I'm not sure if he's known widely by this nickname, but he should be.

However, all the previous films, including ‘Supporting Film’ (2015) about the moviegoing experience, and last year's ‘Eine Sekunde in Fränkli’, made during a two-week residency at Kurzfilmtage Winterthur, are impersonal: there are no real characters in them and sometimes it can feel as if they were made with the primary purpose of showcasing his enviable technical skills.

Now, the Green Screen Gringo seems to come into his own with ‘Neighbour Abdi’, which has won the Silver Pardino in Locarno's Leopards of Tomorrow competition, and is now screening in competition at Uppsala. The titular character is a man from Somalia, of Dijkstra's age (38), whose workshop is located next to the filmmaker's in the town of Zwolle. After seeing ‘Démontable’, Abdi wanted Dijkstra to make a film about him. He had arrived in the Netherlands in 1995, escaping the war at home with his family, and didn't land smoothly. Due to some bad decisions, he spent eight years in jail and three years as a "restricted patient", a Dutch-specific form of therapy imposed by a judge. This helped him turn things around and he is now a furniture designer, and it turns out, a very talented one.

As Abdi, who is credited as co-writer, tells his story, we watch these scenes play out and then inevitably the layer of what's happening on the green screen is removed for us to see the set. The dialogue overlaps across the scenes, produced by breaking the fourth wall on the one hand and with the cinematic illusion on the other, and the apparently obvious notion that this is a documentary, is challenged. The protagonist and the filmmaker work closely on the film, and in the beginning they are trying to make the small-scale model of Abdi's neighbourhood as realistic as possible. Dijkstra brings a bag of grey sand and Abdi agrees to its colour and texture, followed by his call to a friend to take a photo of the Mogadishu sky. The screenwriting here economically and convincingly introduces us to the protagonist's memories and complex feelings about his hometown and country.

In the model of Mogadishu, there is a kid playing a young Abdi who looks just like him — making one think it might be his cousin. As the boy runs on the green treadmill, he has a smile on his face, and so does a young man playing a soldier who gets killed. It's fun to be on the green screen set, and they are clearly not actors — but this doesn't take away from the film because we are aware that it's an illusion. Enough time and cinematic space have been dedicated to the audience getting used to it, and accepting it as the world of this film, and by extension, Abdi's world.

However, it's the protagonist's words that give a true dramatic gravity to the film, and this is a first for Dijkstra. Even if he touched upon some social issues in his earlier films, one can never really achieve depth without a character that the audience will connect to. Abdi is a likable, charismatic guy and Dijkstra manages to pull us into the story through his trademark approach. Actually, the contrast of the playful process makes the calvary Abdi went through even starker. Racism in the Dutch society is unavoidable for a Somalian immigrant, and it feels like one of the filmmaker’s goals is to highlight it. He does it in a cleverly conceived manner through the multi-layered style that always keeps the audience engaged.

Dijkstra's films may seem like a combination of narrative simplicity and technical complexity, especially with his own presence in their worlds and on the screen itself, but they always resist classification. How to decide if it's a documentary, fiction, experimental or animation film when it is made out of disparate and often contradictory elements? For programmers and critics, it's a complicated and inspiring challenge, and for audiences, it's an exhilarating and, in the filmmaker’s strongest moments, a fulfilling experience.