STORYTELLING FROM IVORY COAST
By Sachin Chatte
The variety of films at a festival and the themes that they deal with constantly amaze you. Every region and country has its own stories to tell; the range of tales is always impressive. For instance, if you see films from South America, they have their own little sensibilities and ways of telling a story, in a broad sense. Films from Iran, Afghanistan, and that part of the world are known to use their resources in the best possible manner without compromising on the aspects of film making. Without sounding disparaging, perhaps the only industries where the quantity is far more impressive than the quality is Hollywood and Bollywood.
Not many films come out of Africa, it is largely under-represented. But every now and then, there is a film that makes waves. Given the size of the continent, the subject, and stories are also different – for instance, the films from North and West Africa frequently deal with the issue of migration – violence and the social crisis have marred many countries forcing people to seek greener pastures.
At IFFI this year, Night of The Kings (2020), a film from the Ivory Coast was screened. It lived up to the reputation that preceded it. On the surface of it, the story is about a pickpocket who is sent to the much dreaded MACA prison. He earns the sobriquet of ‘Roman’, the storyteller, like a contemporary Scheherazade. Intentional or not, one could see an allegory to the MAGA crowd – they blindly follow what they are told and are a pretty unruly bunch.
The prison is in the middle of nowhere, the officials are hardly seen because this is the story of the inmates – they pretty much run the show in the prison. In fact, one could call it a story of our society, with all the power struggles that are involved. The present boss of the inmates is Blackbeard, though his beard is no longer black. He is ill and the end is not too far, while the move to replace him and take charge is already underway.
The most fascinating aspect of the story is this – Roman, the storyteller, has to tell a story at night when there is a red moon. It is a big celebration and an event that all inmates look forward to. Roman’s job is not easy, he has to keep going until dawn, or else the end could be rather unpleasant for him. He weaves a story and an intriguing one – very cleverly, the film cuts with a representation of the story and Roman’s narration in the prison, with the inmates listening to it like a captive audience – some of them even enact and sing along. From a tale woven on the spot, Ramon delves into the history and politics of the Ivory Coast while telling the story of the Zama and his tragic end. There are plenty of mystical elements in the film along with an almost surreal scene. The 52-year-old director has packed in a lot but he has done it so seamlessly that you watch with rapt attention in admiration of his skills.
On the technical front, the production design and particularly the lighting is from the absolute top draw making this film one of the better ones at IFFI.
Ivory Coast hardly has any film school, funding doesn’t come easy and they barely make a film or two every year. That makes Night of The Kings all the more special, making Philippe Lacôte, whose debut film Run (2014) premiered at Cannes, an established master storyteller.
While watching the film, this thought crossed my mind more than once – when are we going to see something path-breaking like this in Goan cinema? It has been more than a decade since Laxmikant Shetgaonker’s Paltodcho Munis (The Man Across The Bridge, 2009) won a prize at TIFF Toronto International Film Festival, making it the first Konkani film to shine at one of the well-established festivals in the world. It was a long wait till Miransha Naik’s Juze (2017) which also did well in the international film circuit and Yash Sawant’s short film A Cold Summer Night (2018) traveled to some festivals, but apart from that, there is nothing to write home about.
To be fair, the onus doesn’t lie only on the filmmakers – the audience, state support, and other factors also count. More musings on that in tomorrow’s column.