Berlinale review: Dayveon (Amman Abbasi)

Independent American cinema made on a very low budget, and in a do-it-yourself economy, has become a genre on its own, with its specific codes (in terms of visuals, narrative, characters) that can tend to clog individual inspiration and turn the movies made this way into replicas of one another. However, in this frame, with his first feature Dayveon (on which he worked as director, writer, producer and composer) twenty-eight-year-old Amman Abbasi managed to create a space of his very own. He achieved it with his impressive work on two axes: the description of the world his characters live in, and the way he tells their story through means of pure cinema.

The movie is named after its main protagonist, a thirteen-year-old boy whose older brother was shot and who is nevertheless keen on joining the local gang. For a reason as straightforward as it is distressing: to become one of these thugs is the only way to feel active, even alive, in the dead-end posing as a town where Dayveon is supposed to exist. From there, going anywhere else is clearly not an option for the inhabitants. They are stuck in a community cut off from the world, in addition to having seemingly no head, no network, no landmarks – as we are never shown any roads, any school or hospital, any playground for the kids. Even the Internet seems to be non-existent, while the symbols of the 20th century are barely hanging on: one television in the background of a shot, a single trifling store for buying supplies. What Abbasi depicts with substantial strength is a regression to the times of the remote Far West, with no one bothering to explore or develop it anymore.

Abbasi’s filmmaking is equally remarkable when it comes to convey the tale of Dayveon and the other forsaken people around him. Dialogues are scarcely used throughout the movie, and are replaced by expressions, punctuation, rhymes taken from the cinematographic language in which Abbasi is obviously already fluent. The key thing about his production is that it is not the work of a showoff, only interested in putting on display his talents and thus altering the film into a hollow business card. All the artistic choices made by Abbasi resonate with the emotions, dilemmas, wounds that the characters are experiencing deep inside them. This inner turmoil may reach out to us through classic (but well thought and paced) parallel editing, between Dayveon’s misdemeanors and his family’s daily occupations; or in an even more refined way, through the warmth and the intensity which radiate from the framing, the lighting, the use of music in the scenes. A feral sequence set in a nightclub but accompanied by a fragile melody played on the piano is the acme of Abbasi’s vibrant sensory storytelling, reminiscent of what Barry Jenkins recently did with Moonlight. This connection, alongside the duration of both movies (75 minutes vs. 110) and the difference in age of their heroes, places Dayveon as Moonlight’s younger brother. This remains true until the end of the film, which aims in a very sweet and caring way for its characters’ peace and solace.