Borderlines is gripping entertainment; poetic while hotly topical; an engrossing legal thriller, a drama that transverses national bounds.
Michela Wrong’s brilliant novel Borderlines, which I have spent many months adapting for the screen, is nominally set in the fictional state of North Darrar; but there is no mistaking the analogy with the tiny state of Eritrea, and its border dispute with its former occupier, Ethiopia. Wrong presents North Darrar as poor, inward-looking and fiercely proud; in stark contrast to the Western superpowers who jostle to win influence in the strategically-important Horn of Africa.
I’m deeply drawn to this timely story, set on my continent. It talks of the challenges faced by fledgeling democracies — of throwing off colonial shackles, of migration, of poverty and inequality — via a story that is fresh and engaging and never didactic: a story with which the viewer can connect on both an an intellectual and emotional level.
On an outer level, the film Borderlines will tell a “coming-of-age” story, in which Paula Shackleton, a young hotshot lawyer, develops from being a naive idealist who sees justice as a pure concept, to someone who understands the brutality of international power imbalances and the fact that justice isn’t always as straightforward as she’s perceived it to be. On an inner level, this is a story of overcoming grief, and of dealing with a relationship that went terribly wrong. Paula goes to work in North Darrar soon after losing the great love of her life in a fatal accident, and she sees going to Africa as a means of fleeing her pain. Paula does eventually find closure and some kind of healing.
The idea of the do-good Westerner traveling to Africa and finding “inner meaning” is of course a well-worn film trope. So much so that I am deeply weary of white-saviour-goes-to-Africa stories, such as the recent One Last Face (dir. Sean Penn, 2016), in which the African characters have no agency whatsoever, and in which Africa serves as little more than dramatic, war-torn backdrop. However, Borderlines is of an entirely different ilk. It is with relief and refreshment that we encounter spiky, obdurate Paula, who ruthlessly interrogates her own role as an outsider and ostensible do-gooder on the continent. Crucially, her African friends and colleagues also question and critique her role. As a white African, I am constantly re-examining my own place on the continent, and I find the conundrums Paula faces pertinent and gut-wrenchingly real. The novel’s exploration of moral ambiguity – personal and professional – is a welcome blast of invigorating air.
Significantly, Paula’s professional and personal journeys — her outer and inner character arcs — are inextricably intertwined. She finally has an epiphany: her doomed relationship with her married lover was one that involved wilful blindness. For five years she has lied to herself about the fact that he never intended to leave his wife, and has allowed that status quo to persist. In much the same way, she has colluded and practised selective blindness in working for the state of North Darrar, a regime which tortures its citizens. By the film’s end she has far greater clarity of vision about herself and her interpersonal relationships, and about iniquitous power relations in the wider political world.
Both the outward legal thriller plot and the internal character story are about the complexities and hazards of boundaries, of borders: about the the cartography of a continent, and also of the human heart. The motif of borders will be alluded to right up front in the film’s title sequence, a sequence of stunning aerial shots of African landscapes, cut across by physical frontiers such as mountain ranges and rivers, as well as man-made borders of walls and fences. These shots of the land will be intercut and overlaid with colonial era maps. For Borderlines, although nominally about two African countries in the Horn of Africa, stands for all sorts of unresolved border conflicts that cause human sufferings and displacement throughout the continent, the genesis of which can be traced the epoch of colonisation. For instance, South Sudan recently gained independence from Sudan, and right now the English-speaking provinces in Cameroon are holding mass protests as they feel marginalized by the Francophone majority. The political setup there too can be traced back to colonial agreements between the British and French.
The ultimate take-out from Borderlines is that, going forward, African solutions need to be sought for African problems. All over Africa, borders are being challenged. And again and again, international arbitration fails to provide lasting solutions: agreements that work on the ground. Border decisions cannot simply be made by legal outsiders, dealing with technical issues in places like The Hague, but rather need to be made as political, implementable deals, with local participation. The story goes so far as to suggest that international justice can just make things worse. Certainly, the role of Western justice in Africa needs urgently to be interrogated, particularly at a time when a number of African states, including South Africa, Burundi and Gambia, have threatened to pull out of the International Criminal Court, dubbing it the ‘International Caucasian Court’ — accusing it of being an institution set up to police Africans, rather than the world at large.
Two of the most important film references for me are The Constant Gardener (dir. Fernando Meirelles, 2005) and Eye in the Sky (dir. Gavin Hood, 2016). Both problematise the power that the West wields over Africa. The Constant Gardener is a pertinent thriller that takes place in East Africa, and also revolves around a doomed love story. Eye in the Sky, has, like Borderlines, a moral conundrum at its heart, and shares with our film the theme of surveillance. In terms of its asphyxiating tone, Jane Campion’s series Top of the Lake (2004, 2017) is one source of inspiration: the work has the kind of disturbing, mysterious atmosphere that I would like to achieve in Borderlines, as Paula becomes more deeply embroiled in the workings of the police state, and the line between reality and paranoid imagination becomes increasingly blurred.
Western hegemony in Africa, the West’s patronage and attempt to ‘fix up’ Africa in its image: these are not ideas that have been explored much in fictional cinema. I look forward to doing so in the film adaptation of Borderlines, a story that seamlessly marries the personal and the political, that gets under the skin of a fallible, loveable woman, battling to find her place in a divided, imbalanced world.