Sunday 9 October 2022

Shabu (Shamira Raphaëla, 2021)

Shamira Raphaëla's Shabu feels very much like a companion piece to Mondig Zuid: both documentaries—which were selected for this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam, where they played in the RTM strand—examine the daily lives of teens from Rotterdam's south side.  Following post-IFFR outings at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX) and the Berlinale, Shabu continues to make its way round the festival circuit with screenings at the London Film Festival, where it is showing today and tomorrow; a measure of anticipated interest in the film is indicated by the fact that today sees it playing on two screens, with 15 minutes separating the start times.  Mondig Zuid's three main subjects could quite seamlessly wander into Shabu, while the title character of Raphaëla's film would not look out of place alongside the teenagers of Mondig Zuid.    

Much of Shabu takes place in and around De Peperklip, one of a number of striking residential complexes designed by Dutch-Curaçaoan architect Carel Weeber; now 40 years old, the controversial apartment block stands as the largest social housing project in Rotterdam-Zuid, and in Shabu this vast, sprawling building serves as a character in its own right.  The Shabu of the title is a 14-year-old boy of Surinamese extraction, and shortly into the film he's seen being admonished by his grandmother for wrecking her car, which he borrowed without permission.  With a long hot summer in the doghouse stretching out ahead of him, Shabu is tasked with scratching together the money needed to pay the substantial repair bill.  Naturally, the teen is none too pleased with the penalty he's been handed, but he reluctantly agrees to do what he can to raise the required four-figure sum. 

When several days of hawking ice lollies fails to bring in much revenue, Shabu—who appears to know virtually everyone in the vicinity of De Peperklip—turns his attentions to staging a block party, which will carry an admission fee of 2€.  Shabu proceeds to go on a charm offensive, calling various friends and acquaintances in hope of finding a DJ for the event, and he ropes a number of friends into learning a dance routine that's planned as a backdrop to Shabu's showcasing of his talents—or otherwise—as a rapper.  It must be said that Shabu shows no lack of initiative as he sets about organising the party, and his resourcefulness is quite impressive.  While it is clear that Shabu—who often passes for someone five years his senior—knows how to schmooze those who can help him out, there are also moments when he demonstrates a lack of tact, with both his girlfriend and loyal best friend falling victim to Shabu's thoughtlessness.

Yet it is Shamira Raphaëla's willingness to document the various sides of Shabu that makes her film so compelling; Shabu may be flawed and immature, but he's also capable of real warmth and generosity, and in a holistic sense his personality is one in which the good clearly outweighs the bad.  Which again brings us back to Shabu's near neighbours from Mondig Zuid who, like the boy from De Peperklip and countless other teens, are simply trying to figure out what is a very confusing period in their lives, and in doing so they don't always make the correct decisions.  While Shabu's immediate situation may be rather more pressing as he scrabbles to earn the money to pay back his grandmother, he's treading what is recognisably the same path as Mondig Zuid's Selena, Darlin and Tamia, each of whom could easily have anchored a film all on their own.  Over time, I suspect I will conflate the engaging, uplifting Shabu with Mondig Zuid, but both films are equally terrific snapshots of the real Rotterdam.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI