A French film originally titled Bienvenue a Marly-Gomont, The African Doctor tells the true story of Seyolo Zantoko, a Congolese native and his struggles to serve as a doctor in a small French village in order to obtain French nationality and to expose his family to wider world.
The tale begins as Seyolo graduates from a French medical school. He is offered a prestigious job in his homeland of Zaire/Congo working for a corrupt government official. Despite the money and the perks attached to this position, he has heard instead of a small French village which has been seeking a doctor for its citizens for many years with no success. He decides to take this job in the hopes that it will allow him to become a French citizen. When phoning home with the good news to his wife and children, the family is thrilled due to the mistaken impression that his job is in Paris. Needless to say, they are all in for a shock when they arrive in France and find themselves feeling like fish out of water, in a very rural community which is not happy that their new doctor and his family are black foreigners.
Despite the close-minded beliefs and behavior of the town, Seyolo begins to reach out to the local community in the hopes that once they know him they will no longer fear him and allow him to treat those in need. The family meets many road blocks in their efforts to integrate themselves into the village. Not only are they combatting prejudice, but their own culture shock and adaptability to an entirely new way of life.
The African Doctor which is set in the 1970’s deals with serious issues, but could be labeled as a comedy. I believe that in displaying with humor the challenges this family faces it is able to make several good points without being offensive. Not only that, but it allows the audience to sympathize and relate in a way that feels personal. Seyolo is the lynchpin of this story and his hopeful fortitude and persistence in confronting the exclusiveness of the people is inspiring. He maintains a positive outlook and attitude and encourages his struggling wife and children without displaying his own inner turmoil when things appear hopeless. The affection and conflict between Seyolo and his wife Anne as they adjust to the consequences of his decision for their family provide a realistic view of the challenges many couples face, yet they are able to work through them together and Anne is a great support despite the fact that she does not approve of their move.
The time period and setting of this film particularly intrigued me. Most people are familiar with America’s struggles with racism and the cultural differences among the races during the seventies. But, I am not as familiar with how other countries viewed these same issues during this time period. From my understanding, England in particular did not seem to exhibit as much hatred or fear attached to race as did Americans. I’m not sure if this film accurately displays the French attitude towards race as it is set in a quiet rural village which had not been exposed much to outsiders. France may have been more egalitarian in the bigger cities where many different cultures lived together. In fact, Seyolo’s wife’s family shows up a couple of times in the film, driving in from their home in Brussels. So, it is clear that their family is an international, adventurous one with exposure to cultures other than their own. In fact, it is the appearance of his in-laws which provide some of the funniest moments of the film while also challenging Seyolo not to lose his cultural identity while trying to integrate.
There is a sub-plot between the village mayor and his challenger which directly impacts the Zantoko family. It is a harsh reminder of how personal political ambition can negatively affect innocent bystanders.
Since this is a French film, I am not at all familiar with any of the actors, but I felt that they were all believable in portraying the journey, not just for the Zantoko family, but also that of the townspeople who must face their own flaws. In fact, Seyolo’s character acts as mirror to each individual he encounters, reflecting back what is in their hearts. The actress who plays Anne Zantoko does so with a perfect blend of spunk, long-suffering and personality which makes me wish she could be my best friend. The child actors also do a great job portraying the difficulties of fitting in at a school where they are mocked, while also struggling to adapt to their father’s expectations at home.
Again, despite the serious subject matter, this film was enjoyable and moving. The final scene reminded me a bit of the one in the movie The Holiday where Arthur, the elderly screen writer attends an evening in his honor and is surprised to find a room full of people who remember and were impacted by him. The African Doctor has just such a memorial and is a great reminder of the impact that one person can have when they live a life of kindness and humility. The fact that this is based on a true story makes that impact even more powerful. It is currently available for viewing with English subtitles on Netflix.
For more information about the true story, I have attached this article.