Berlinale 2022 review: Shabu (Shamira Raphaëla)

“Raphaëla captures a truly distinct and poignant celebration of life, proving that the most abundant joys are often found in the most unexpected places.”

Childhood is a time of discovery. It’s the stage of our lives where we learn about the nature of the world, which we normally encounter through making mistakes and having to face whatever consequences come about as a result. This is shown beautifully in the first scene of Shabu, the ambitious and heartwarming documentary by Shamira Raphaëla, where the titular character (a 14-year-old boy growing up in working-class Rotterdam) is scolded by his grandmother for wrecking her car, and told to find a way to pay her back for the repairs. This kickstarts one of the most joyful and endearing documentaries of the past few years, a charming exploration of a young man doing whatever he can to make a name for himself outside of the very limited circumstances offered by his humble surroundings, leading him to develop a resourcefulness and lust for life that the director captures with meaningful candour. There is an endless selection of ideas embedded in Shabu that warrant celebration, mainly in how it never once takes itself too seriously, remaining a playful and endearing testament to the follies of youth while not neglecting the more serious subject matter that simmers beneath the surface, leading to one of the most unforgettable depictions of childhood in recent memory.

Shabu proves that there is value in non-fiction films that simply seek to document a particular time and place, and that it is not entirely necessary for there to be an overarching theme other than providing a clear snapshot of a group of people and their daily lives. The film orbits around the residents of a social housing complex in Rotterdam known as The Paperclip, which is home to countless people, each with a story worth telling. Shabu, a first-generation citizen of the Netherlands, and his family of Surinamese migrants are the focus of the film, which shows their various misadventures amid the sunbaked urban landscapes of a contemporary city over the course of a few scorching summer days. Shabu recalls the blissful dog days of childhood, which many of us would likely consider to be the happiest and most carefree times of our lives. This is the foundation for the film’s interest in looking at working-class life through optimistic and upbeat perspectives, particularly in the cross-generational conflict that evokes conversations around the importance of holding onto traditions while still embracing modernity, which is a vital conversation that is constantly going on in the global culture and which this film is very interested in exploring.

Raphaëla explores a number of fascinating themes, and she grounds these ideas by showing the interweaving lives of these people through the eyes of an unexpected protagonist whose perspective is unique, and makes for truly riveting viewing. Shabu is as unusual a character as any fictional construction – he is eccentric and lovable and possesses a distinct joy for life that we rarely find in even the most enthusiastic characters. The director discovered a true star with this young man, and while there is more to the film than just his everyday life, we are constantly drawn to him and his experience. The film moves from an ethnographic document of the residents of The Paperclip to the depiction of a young man learning about the world that surrounds him, making use of his incredible resourcefulness and persuasive abilities to get ahead. He embraces life’s challenges with a perpetual smile and never-ending sense of optimism, his upbeat disposition allowing him to navigate heartbreak, familial trouble and a range of other issues that he simply takes in stride, somehow managing to make overcoming challenges just another part of his daily routine. The sheer amount of endearing magnetism contained within this previously anonymous, non-professional teenager is staggering, but we simply cannot resist his charisma, which only helps support the director’s very clear compassion for this subject matter.

Shabu proves the well-worn adage that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction – and in the story of this young man spending his summer fending off adversity and expressing himself to anyone who will pay attention, the director constructs something truly extraordinary. This film is the purest distillation of joy, rendered in the most vivid colours imaginable, both in how the director captures the landscape visually and how she frames these individuals as the most lovably eccentric cast of characters. There’s a melodic quality to the story that reflects the theme of finding music in everyday life, the film being structured around Shabu’s constant quest to infuse every moment with music in some form. The recurring musical cue of “everything’s gonna be alright” is reassuring and helps ground this unconventionally charming coming-of-age story, which gives the viewer brief glimpses into the life of a young man undergoing a very different kind of education, attending the proverbial school of life, where he encounters invaluable lessons that can only be learned through experience. There’s a tender heartfulness that underpins the exuberance and anchors Shabu within a recognizable reality (rather than manipulating it through oversentimentality) – and through allowing these moments to occur naturally, rather than being invasive into the subjects’ space, Raphaëla captures a truly distinct and poignant celebration of life, proving that the most abundant joys are often found in the most unexpected places.