Japanese directors have made films in many different settings, but it’s safe to say Takeshi Fukunaga is the first of his countrymen to direct a narrative feature set partly in Liberia, a small African country not too long ago embroiled in a bloody civil war. In fact, “Out of My Hand” is only the second such feature period to be shot by a foreign filmmaker in the country.
Premiered at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, the movie is a rarity for not only its director and setting, but its informed, incisive examination of Liberian life and the immigrant experience in today’s America.
In contrast to the many Japanese films set abroad that use the locals as exotic color for the dramas of their Japanese principals, “Out of My Hand” is almost totally centered on its Liberian characters. Even more atypically, Fukunaga uses his outsider’s perspective to closely observe his subjects and their milieu minus cultural filters or political blinders. He sympathizes but doesn’t pity, comments but doesn’t condescend. He has filmed humanly flawed individuals, not representative types, noble or otherwise.
All of which may make “Out of My Hand” sound like a really good documentary, but Fukunaga is also making art — and some of his artistic choices will leave those expecting a straightforward social drama scratching their heads.
Narration and flashbacks are absent, while explanations of any sort are kept to a minimum. The film isn’t out to mystify, but it does demand close attention, as well as the ability to make connection — say between a kid’s flip-flop and a taxi’s tire — that are not always crystal clear.
The story centers on Cisco (Bishop Blay), a tapper on a rubber plantation who tends the trees that produce latex — the raw material for rubber. His hours are long and his pay is low, but he has a wife and two children to support so he tries to get along with his demanding overseer, in contrast to his volatile co-worker Francis (Duke Murphy Dennis), who rages at their conditions. But when a union strike fails miserably, Cisco’s anger also boils over and, with the encouragement of a charismatic Christian minister, he decides to leave both job and country.
Fortunately, his cousin Marvin (Rodney Rogers Beckley) is living in New York, so Cisco uses this connection to get a visa, a place to stay and a job as a taxi driver. Before long, he is socializing with members of the local Liberian community and sending money home. But this budding immigrant success story is derailed by the sudden appearance of Jacob (David Roberts), a burly pimp and drug dealer who knows Cisco’s dark wartime past — and won’t let him forget it.
Some of the film’s actors are non-professionals and their performances show it, but Blay and Roberts have strong screen presences (think Idris Alba and the young Forest Whitaker), producing an authentic and explosive tension.
Instead of the expected showdown, however, “Out of My Hand” ends with an incident that may seem like an all-too-convenient shortcut, but eloquently (if enigmatically) expresses what the film is all about. Cisco, like the rest of us, makes choices and has to live with them. But how can you choose to forget a past that has seared its horrors into your soul? The drip, drip, drip of memories continues, like the slow flow of sap from those everlasting rubber trees.