Issaka Sawadogo remains a mystery here in the States, but you ought to pay attention – his work has been profiled on S&A a few times in the past (HERE and HERE) – because the Burkinabe actor is bestowed with serious acting range. 

Somewhat of an imperious aura – a burly and imposing physique – Sawadogo’s transparency, transformation on screen, and ability to get lost in his characters are impressive: he’s courageous; he’s resilient; he’s bellicose; he’s content; he’s affectionate; he charms; he intimidates; he weeps; he’s scared. And you connect with him, intimately, while watching him. 

The versatile actor cemented his appeal internationally in Nicholas Provost’s provocative film The Invader, which caused a stir in 2011’s film festival circuit for his performance as an African immigrant who becomes obsessed with an affluent white woman, and who resorts to stalking her after she ends their affair. 

And now, the Canadian/Belgian drama Diego Star, helmed by Frederick Pelletier, has been garnering critical acclaim during its film festival run. Star, which is premiering this month at Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, sees Sawadogo as Traore, a Russian ship engineer from the Ivory Coast unjustly blamed for the ship’s failed engine. 

The ship is stranded off the coast of Canada during the bitter winter. The ship’s Russian owner is quick to place the blame on Traore and his crew, comprised of other immigrants, which are now under scrutiny and enormous pressure take full responsibility for the mechanical bust, in order to avoid becoming ostracized by the ship’s Russian management. Conflict arises when Traore resists to plead guilty; he contends that he has been warning the management that the ship is old. 

Although the rather observant Diego Star is regarded as a social realist drama, the heart of the film lies in his relationship with Fanny (a very believable Chloe Bourgeois), a 20-something woman, and her infant son. The single mother accepts to house the sailor, a stranger – one of several housed with the general population while the ship is being investigated – as a means to earn extra income. 

Fanny – a bit taken aback initially by Traore’s warm and kind disposition, especially towards her son – is practical about the situation, and she is somewhat aloof towards the sailor.

Their relationship dynamics spur some rather engrossing and touching sequences, which aren’t contrived. Fanny doesn’t have much support, monetary or familial; she begins to appreciate, warm up to and trust Traore, who is estranged from his very own family. Unwittingly, these two characters form a sort of surrogate family, which thankfully and unpredictably, isn’t founded on romance. 

Their need for support and connection is very real and palpable. These characters, understatedly, convey complex human emotions, especially Traore’s, as his character lends a hand in the care-taking of Fanny’s son. He isn’t just a roommate. It must be confusing for a man in that situation, especially one from a traditional background, yearning for a family, and in a vulnerable space. He isn’t the man of the house, really; alas, their situation is confusing for her to, as the climax of the film suggests. 

However, the film in general deals with harrowing exploitation of immigrant workers and subsequent grave social injustice. Traore’s integrity and pride won’t allow him to lie in order to keep his job; he will resist at all costs, literally. Diego Star is disheartening in its grim realism; it isn’t a hopeful film about “the truth setting you free,” or about reigning justice. But it is a moving drama anchored by Sawadogo’s layered, splendid performance.