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EIFF 2022 Review: Saloum – “Very cool, slick, stylish African flick”

Directed by Jean Luc Herbulot
Starring Yann Gael, Evelyne Ily Juhen, Roger Sallah, Mentor Ba, Bruno Henry

The programmer introducing Saloum to a late-night Edinburgh International Film Festival crowd was eager to share their enthusiasm for Saloum, describing it as part of a bold, new, confident strand of film-making coming out of Africa. Shot mostly in the French language, I felt this Senegalese movie lived up to its glowing introduction at the festival. We start off with what looks like a massacre in an African town, bodies everywhere, civilians and military alike, and three mysterious figures walking among the bodies – the Bangui Hyenas – leader Chaka (Yann Gael) , Rafa (Roger Sallah) and Minuit (Mentor Ba). You’re given the strong impression the mayhem and body count has come from these three figures swaggering through the streets, and then we find out they are extracting an international drug smuggler to help him out of the country, for a sizeable amount of gold.

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However not all is as it often seems in this very cool, slick, stylish African flick; first impressions are these are just three gunsels – cool perhaps, but criminals, thugs – happy to leave a line of bodies in their wake. Except as the film progresses we hear stories about the Hyenas, and despite the tough guy posturing, we start to learn of very different views of them, that they’ve interfered against despots, helped movements and other rather more heroic actions. It’s a good strategy as it means you can’t just peg the trio as one thing or another, good guy, bad guy, hero, villain, and it makes the mix far more interesting. It also establishes that they have a pretty formidable reputation that precedes them.

Their exit strategy with their drug lord is a light aircraft from a nearby airstrip, taking off as local reinforcement arrives too late to do much more than fire impotently in the air at the retreating plane, as our trio and their client relax. Except, of course, like any good plan or heist in a movie, something has to go wrong (otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a story, would we?!) – in this case, they realise they are losing fuel, and assume a stray bullet hit the tank. They can’t make their original destination, but Chaka, the brains of the operation, comes up with a backup plan, to land in the Saloum area of Senegal. Having hidden the plane and the gold, they set off on foot for a small, isolated resort of sorts that Chaka claims to know, saying to leave all the talking to him, and explaining after a couple of days of playing visitor there, they will scrounge fuel and some sealant to fix the fuel tank, and off they go. The other two are curious as to how Chaka knows this area and people, but follow him.

At the resort, things start well enough, greeted by the seemingly affable Omar (Bruno Henry) who runs it, and meeting the deaf and mute guest Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen) – which leads to an increasingly hilarious sign-language conversation between Awa and Chaka at the camp’s dinner table, as the others all watch on bemused. But quite quickly they realise Awa knows just who they are and wants something from them – is she for them or against? And Chaka hints at past interactions with Omar years ago, but Omar doesn’t recognise him. When a local police captain arrives for dinner, the tension ratchets ever upwards – have they been rumbled, or is it pure coincidence? Adding into this, Minuit and Rafa are starting to question Chaka’s motives, as it starts to look like he has some long unfinished business in this strange region, and they begin to wonder if it was an accident that brought them here or a plan…

This burns along nicely, building character interactions, establishing the surroundings, slowly increasing the sense of tension building, along with the unmistakable feeling that something here just isn’t right. I don’t just mean with the are they here by accident or secret plan, or how does a police captain and a deaf woman happen to be there and know who they are at just the right time. No, there’s more, especially when we see interactions with the nearest village – the people, the place, the whole land here is wrong, something dark, something bad, something not human…

Saloum gleefully throws all sorts of ingredients into the pot – we get action, the daring escape/heist gone wrong, the emergency plan that may be far more than it appears, characters who keep evolving throughout, seemingly and obviously one thing only for us to learn more further in that changes our perceptions of them, it throws in some very slick and stylish action that would be at home in a Tarantino joint or a Hong Kong action flick, with elements of the Spaghetti Western and outright horror movie too. It’s as prepared to mix knowing humour as it is to take on dark subjects, like the colonial abuses of the past and the use of child soldiers in many civil conflicts. It sounds like it should be overcooked, but it isn’t, somehow all these elements, mixed in at just the right time as the film progresses, all work together, and the narrative even takes a couple of turns I didn’t expect. Cool, stylish, an ideal late-night movie treat from Africa.

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