A short burst of a film shot over 11 days with minimal equipment, Burn It Up Djassa only falters when setting its sights on more than what its shaky digital camera can capture. The Ivorian film follows Tony (Abdoul Karim Konaté), a 25-year-old cigarette vendor living with his sister, Ange (Adélaïde Ouattara), a reluctant hairdresser moonlighting as a prostitute. Their older brother, Mike (Mamadou Diomandé), a police detective, watches over them, though his attempts to keep them on the straight and narrow do little to deter them from the opposite route.
The three siblings live in Abidjan’s Wassakara neighborhood, introduced by the film’s vibrant narrator (Mohamed Bamba) as a ghetto filled with transitory residents providing for their families using whatever means are available. Always keen to romanticize the neighborhood’s rougher qualities, our narrator points out the illegal methods in particular, and throughout he’s less necessary for pushing the story along than for spinning it into myth. In his telling, Tony is a fearless king who gains notoriety with his poker skills and, quick with a blade, leaps up the ghetto ranks. As played by Konaté, though, Tony is far from Tony Montana. In private, he gets giddy while counting his money, and his tough public persona comes off like posturing even when he seems most intent on following through. This contrast between the legend of Tony and what we witness on screen cleverly gives the character more depth than might have been possible otherwise, given how quickly Burn It Up Djassa takes us through Tony’s ascendance. Mostly the juxtaposition emphasizes Tony’s youth, which, whether he’s haughtily celebrating after a lucky night at the poker table or moping following a bad one, shows in every scene and intensifies our compassion for him as the film moves toward its troubled third act.
Director Lonesome Solo intersperses Tony’s story with scenes of locals singing, drinking, and playing music. But these hang-out moments—shot, like the rest of the film, using mostly pressed-in close ups—fail to capture a broader vision of Wassakara and Abidjan. In scenes of conflict, Lonesome Solo’s claustrophobic style brings a tense energy to events, but these more relaxed parties would have benefitted from more room to breathe. The benefits of having characters speak in a street slang called Nouchi, meanwhile, get lost in translation (Djassa means ghetto in Nouchi). The subtitles ignore the rhythm of the dialogue and sometimes seem to skip much of what’s said and capture only the essential meaning. As such, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that my viewing experience was akin to watching The Mack mutated into Hemingway’s prose.
If the film is too unfocused when capturing Abidjan street life generally, it hits its stride telling the condensed story of Tony’s rise and fall. Particularly at around its halfway point, when it starts moving with quickened pace toward a fated climax, the film’s simpler but more powerful elements (Tony’s pride and ambition, his brother’s patronizing overprotection, and the always-lingering possibility of violence) combust into engrossing drama. A confrontation outside a convenience store in particular captures what Burn It Up Djassa offers at its best: the immediacy and energy of local, threadbare filmmaking used to transmit a recognizable story of family turmoil.