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'Shabu' Review: A Feel-Good Portrait Of Childhood

Shabu dancing with his friends
Shabu (2021); image courtesy of Tangerine Dream and Diplodokus, presented by T A P E

With vibrance and energy, Shabu and its equally vivacious subject have a lot to say about life and growing up, delivered through the most unlikely orator.

Initially opening at the Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), Shabu quickly made its way to IFFR in Rotterdam, where it made a name for itself in the inaugural RTM programme. Focusing ‘films and makers from our city on the River Maas…with an impact reaching far beyond’, RTM makes the case for Rotterdam as a hub of creativity, lifting the veil on the diversity of voices in the city. One such voice, speaking loud and proud from the De Peperklip area, is a 14 year old boy named Shabu, who’s vitality and warmth reflects in Shamira Raphaela’s new documentary, released in cinemas around the UK this Friday.

We meet Shabu at a convention with his family, after he steals his grandmother’s car for fun, only to wreck it and rack up €1,200 worth of damage. His grandmother, who we soon learn he is very close to, speaks to him over the phone from their ancestral home in Suriname. This is the last she speaks to him for the majority of the film, overcome with anger and disappointment towards her grandson.

Shabu (2021); image courtesy of Tangerine Dream and Diplodokus, presented by T A P E

The film thus follows Shabu’s efforts to make up the money to pay for the damages. He initially decides to sell popsicles. But, when this doesn’t work out, he cleans his grandmother’s house, quickly boring of housework. Thus, he takes up a job in the local convenience shop. What he really wants to do, however, is throw a party for his friends and neighbours, which would give him an opportunity to live out his dream of performing his music to an audience.

Raphaela gives us a staggering sense of Shabu’s childish solipsism and precocity, not affording the audience any other perspective but Shabu’s throughout. Every action and event on Shabu’s journey, be it problems with his girlfriend or the boredom of having to work, is experienced by the viewer at his level, his mere 14 years of wisdom not diminishing his perspective.

The way Raphaela pulls us down to his level is through the pacing. His restlessness and liveliness pull him jarringly from one event to another, one extreme emotion to the next. Shabu being a musician, Raphaela uses swift changes in music (from blues to classical, for example) to signify these changes, which really helps to speed up and slow down the film with Shabu’s emotional state.

Shabu and his girlfriend in the pool
Shabu (2021); image courtesy of Tangerine Dream and Diplodokus, presented by T A P E

Of course, throwing everything at this approach also has its downsides. After all, Shabu may be full of life and aspiration, but he is only a kid whose approach to specific events is bound to be counter intuitive. This is where the film may have benefitted from a more distanced perspective, particularly given all of the loose ends (the shop job, for example, or how on earth there could’ve been enough people at such a loosely organised party to make that much money). One often forgets that this is a documentary, as much of what happens feels narratively unbelievable.

However, at the sight of Shabu’s gleeful audacity, revelling in the improbability of his situation, one can’t possibly be anything but happy for him. The message of Shabu seems clear: we might be able to look at this self-proclaimed kleine jongen and pass off his aspirations as big talk. But when he ends up achieving his goals, we realise that this child living in an adult’s world holds a sort of stoicism that we all need. One that helps him get through both a car crash and the stress of organising a party (which he treats with equal weight). As both a recurring blues song and his grandmother says to him in the film’s finale: “everything is going to be alright.”

Shabu is in cinemas from 7th July.


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