Cannes Film Festival 2024: Day 6: Sunday, 19 May: The Story of Souleymane (2024) (L’histoire de Souleymane)

The Story of Souleymane directed by Boris Lojkine is a searingly realistic two days in the life of one of the invisible people – a bicycle courier in Paris.

How I live now

by Alexa Dalby

The Story of Souleymane

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Bicycle couriers are everywhere in European cities but have you ever wondered what their story is? Director Boris Lojkine, co-screenwriter with Delphine Agut, spent years trying to find out more about them and settled on one story in this film. The Story of Souleymane is the result. It’s hyper-realistic, in both settings and acting, so much so that it feels like a documentary. The actors are heart-breakingly intense, yet most are non-professionals.

Matteo Garrone’s Io Capitano graphically tells the story of two Senegalese boys enduring the dangerous migrant route across the Sahara to Libya and thus to Sicily, and their euphoria at achieving the Promised Land of Europe. In The Story of Suleymane reality begins where Io Capitano ends – Suleymane Sangare (Abou Sangare) followed the same route from Africa to Europe and suffered the same hardships and ill-treatment on the way: but he travelled from Guinea-Conakry, not to Italy, but to the unexpectedly harsh daily grind of life in Paris as a bicycle courier.

As in Jacques Audiard’s 2015 film Dheepan, Souleymane finds out that life is hard in Paris. However, the difference for him is that Souleymane is not a refugee with false papers like Dheepan, he is an illegal migrant in Paris under his own identity and he has no prior senior status to fall back on.

What a wonderfully expressive face Abou Sangare has! We see his thoughts as he races against time from one delivery to another all day. He is unfailingly polite and kind – and earning very little. Life in Paris is very complicated for an illegal immigrant.

Souleymane has an appointment for his important asylum interview the day after tomorrow. He is undocumented and if he is granted asylum it will be life-changing: he will be able to live in France permanently and earn money from working legally. To gain asylum, he has been told he needs to learn a fictitious story of why he fled political persecution in Guinea-Conakry to fool “the whites”, ie the asylum officer, as Barry tells him. For that he is coached by Barry (Alpha Oumar Sow), whose thriving business is doing this and supplying fake documentation to assist asylum applicants.

But instead of resting before his big interview, Souleymane is caught up in a dysfunctional hamster-wheel of a complex web of obligations of all kinds: nonstop bicycle deliveries in fast Paris traffic; a crash that damages him and his bike; difficult customers; and chasing disputed payments due to him from the man (Emmanuel Yovanie) who is illegally renting him his courier identity (we know it’s a scam but it’s presented as if he has to do this or starve), which money he needs to pay for his illegal asylum coaching. Amid all this, he has no home: he can only sleep, eat and shower late at night in a homeless hostel. He grabs a moment to phone a neighbour of his unwell mother and at a bad time he receives a traumatic phone call from the girlfriend he left behind.

He seems lonely and battling against insuperable odds but he never gives up, even when he misses a night in the hostel and has to sleep rough. And he still has to learn his ‘story’ for the interview.

The interview is an almost unbearably long, painful scene in a claustrophobic, small office. It is recorded and the officer from OFPRA (Nina Meurisse, the only professional actor) types notes as she asks detailed questions which Souleymane struggles valiantly to answer. We can see she is torn between natural empathy for Souleymane’s predicament and doing her job: she’s being carefully neutral and eventually we see that she becomes more sympathetic but she’s not gullible. Will Souleymame continue to lie about his story or be honest about his life when there’s so much at stake?

The only way to follow Souleymane around Paris was on another bike behind him and the dangerously heavy traffic was real. Cinematographer Tristan Galand creates an almost nightmare world of constant motion from the inhospitable, real-life surroundings and cars and trains that Souleyamane has to navigate ceaselessly around Paris. Abou Sangare is amazingly good in the role of Souleymane, on screen all the time: he brought his own experiences to the role.

The Story of Souleymane: this heart-breaking, powerful film should be compulsory viewing.

Souleymane’s Story premiered at Cannes in Un Certain Regard on 19 May 2024. International sales are by Pyramide and representation by The PR Factory.

Join the discussion