By Sarah Marsh
BERLIN (Reuters) - "Tey," a Senegalese modern fairy-tale which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on Friday, depicts a young man who wakes up inexplicably knowing today is the last day of his life.
"Tey," meaning "today" in the Wolof language, is one of three films in the competition set in Africa, which festival director Dieter Kosslick has described as "an almost forgotten continent in film."
Director Alain Gomis, the son of a French mother and Senegalese father, said "Tey" was about coming to terms with death in order to better appreciate the present, the today.
"In Europe, death doesn't exist, we don't confront it, instead we try to forget it even exists," he told Reuters.
"Through this film I confronted my own biggest fear, that of death, and now I have come to terms with it, it actually enriches every moment, every moment is magic," said the softly spoken director with waist-length dreadlocks.
The main character Satche, played by U.S. actor and musician Saul Stacey Williams, wanders through the bustling streets of his hometown in Senegal, meeting old friends and family and re-assessing his life, in attempt to gain closure before dying.
But if the whole community is involved, dialogue is sparse, reflecting the fact that this journey is an internal one.
"For me it was very scary getting into the character for this film because it operates off the premise of living every day as if it is your last day," said Williams, who learnt Wolof and French on the set. "I had a fear of dying."
Gomis, 39, said the film was against this fear, showing the main character wage an internal war to overcome it.
There are joyous moments as Satche simply enjoys the moment, in town against the background of Senegalese drumming, or in the quiet intimacy of his home with his wife.
In one scene, his entire neighborhood celebrates his last day as he jauntily walks down the street, showering him with gifts of food and flowers, dancing and singing together.
The Berlinale, which last year set Iranian drama "A Separation" on the path to global fame, has a reputation for championing non-mainstream films that might otherwise struggle to find an international audience.
"Tey" director Gomis said films like his would simply become "private projects made for friends" without the showcase of a major film festival like the Berlinale.
"The big festivals allow us to breathe a bit and to try to exist in this kind of huge conformist industry," he said.
"For cinema and all artistic forms, by trying to be ever more efficient you just can't breathe anymore. And you take people for idiots and think that they cannot ... get into a film that doesn't use motifs that are repeated a thousand times."
"At the end of the day I love going to see a James Bond film but I don't want there to be only James Bond films," he said.
Gomis said the Berlin film festival would benefit from its focus this year on African films, which are too often ignored.
"War Witch," a sub-Saharan African drama about a girl's abduction by a rebel army, and "Tabu," a tale of love and crime set in Portugal and Mozambique, will premiere later in the week.
"Europe could enrich itself so much if it did not simply regard Africa with a sense of guilt or charity, but actually opened up to all this continent has to offer," he said.
"One of the greatest directors of cinema, in my opinion, is a Senegalese director called Djibril Diop Mambety, but his films are simply not known here."
"Tey" turns the usual story of Africans seeking to escape their own continent on its head, by showing a Senegalese man -- Satche -- who studied abroad and has returned home.
The tensions afflicting Senegal ahead of elections on February26 are also depicted in the film by protestors chanting in French "Ca suffit" ("It's enough") in standoffs with the police.
(Additional Reporting by Tanya Wood, editing by Paul Casciato)