Who tells your stories?

Sundance Review of Night of the Kings By Wilfred Okiche

In La MACA (Maison d'Arrêt et de Correction d'Abidjan), Côte d’Ivoire’s infamous prison as imagined by filmmaker Philippe Lacôte, terms of engagement are different: Rules that govern civilized society do not necessarily apply and inmates live to die another day.

Which is not to say that La MACA is entirely a lawless entity.

The facility is administered by a motley crew of armed wardens who look like they would rather be anywhere else. Even the jailers recognize that they are merely around for decorative purposes. La MACA is run- quite capably too- by the inmates themselves based on a set of unwritten codes, rules and traditions..

Authority is vested in the hands of the Dangoro, an autocratic figure named Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) who keeps the peace, makes the law and dishes out rewards or punishment accordingly. To enforce his rule and protect himself from rival factions, the Dangoro surrounds himself with a team of trusted lieutenants who are just as likely to turn on him at the first sign of weakness.

Philippe Lacôte, who used to visit La MACA as a child when his mother was a political prisoner, has mined these early experiences to unspool Night of the Kings, a loose, yet tightly drawn feverish fantasy that blends elements of film, music, dance and even a bit of theatre.

To imagine the fine achievement that is Lacôte’s thrilling use of space and human bodies, think of Night of the Kings as the product of a union between Med Hondo’s West Indies and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But by way of Fernando Meirelles’ City of God in the way that the film trains an unflinching gaze on the most disenfranchised of society.

Since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last year, Night of the Kings has been a hit on the festival circuit, playing A-list festivals in Toronto and New York. It berths at Sundance in the Spotlight program after having been selected – and shortlisted - to represent Côte d’Ivoire in the Best International Film category at the Oscars.

When an unnamed youth (played by a convincing Bakary Koné) is brought into the prison, a frail Blackbird, weakened by a terminal illness sees the new inmate as a way for him to stretch his reign just a bit. Competitors to the throne, smelling blood have begun to circle but Blackbeard is obstinate about going down on his own terms. In this regard, the plot of Night of the Kings serves as an interesting metaphor for Côte d’Ivoire - as well as other African and non-African countries - where sit-tight leaders would rather burn the whole thing down than put forward a credible succession plan.

Blackbeard’s plan involves taking advantage of one of the prison’s most important traditions. On the night of the red moon, he anoints the newest inmate as the new Roman, aka storyteller. The Roman’s duty is to tell stories to entertain the inmates from dusk till dawn or lose his life. With his life depending on his ability to talk a good game, the anointed Roman, in time-honored griot tradition, proceeds to spin an incredible tale in which laws of physics, chronology and even reality do not apply.

Made in French, Côte d’Ivoire’s official language gifted by the colonizer, Night of the Kings contains a strong critique of post-colonialism and its multiple facets. Lacôte invites the real world in - to mixed results - by tacking on a plot thread showing footage of the arrest of disgraced former Ivorien leader Laurent Gbagbo.

Written and impeccably mounted by Lacôte whose debut, an uneven political drama, Run, screened at Cannes in 2015, Night of the Kings is a thrilling, confident experience that wears its influences proudly yet dazzles with originality. Lacôte’s second film is a heartfelt ode to storytelling, particularly of the oral tradition.

The film interrogates the power and usefulness of oral storytelling traditions - common in several parts of the continent - as well as the validity of these traditions while also questioning who has the right to tell what stories.

As the young Roman begins his account, nothing is cast in stone anymore. Life itself makes for a grand story and whoever has the power gets to decide the definitive account. But is there even such a thing as definitive where oral traditions are concerned? Stories are passed from one person to the other, one generation to another and along the way they shapeshift and transform into several living elements.

In Lacôte’s hands, the heady blend of words with song plus snatches of homo-erotic choreography involving black male bodies captured by Tobie Marier-Robitaille suggests that perhaps there is no purer form of storytelling than the oral kind.

Night of the Kings - Official Trailer

Wilfred Okiche is one of the most influential critics working in the African culture space. He has mentored young film critics at Talents Durban, the training program of the Durban International Film Festival. He is a member of FIPRESCI and has participated in juries at the Berlinale and the Carthage film festival. He tweets from @drwill20