The Montreal World Film Festival affords an excellent opportunity, for those who choose to avail themselves of it, to broaden the mind with tales foreign and exotic. Best to do the thing right, I say. If I was going to go foreign and exotic, I was going to surpass myself. I was going to go whole hog. And so the decision was born to make a bold foray into the cinematic best Burkina Faso had to offer. A joint France – Burkina Faso production, helped along with a large dollop of funding from the EU, La Colère des Dieux (The Wrath of the Gods) was an entry in the World Competition, and augured well.
As evidence of my noble stamp of mind, those who know me well will readily tell you that the least likely backdrop for my future career is the wild plains of Africa. I generally prefer to maintain an aloof, stern sort of dignity in all my dealings with nature. This is never more in evidence than when I am squealing at a sudden spider, as witnesses to these memorable encounters can testify.
Thomas Hobbes famously opined that, in its natural state, the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and nowhere is this more true than in Burkina Faso. The CIA World Factbook takes us through a whirlwind tour of Burkina Faso that is nothing short of a catalogue of misery.
The CIA World Factbook tells us that the life expectancy of the average Burkinabe, as they call themselves, is under 45 years. The infant mortality rate is 10%. In a country with only 12% arable land, 90% of the population are farmers. With over 13 million inhabitants, there are just 53,000 telephone lines, and about half that number of cell phones. The average literacy rate is 26.6%; the female literacy rate an astonishingly low 16.6%.
By the end of the film, it had become my firm belief that its screenwriters hailed from among the remaining 74.4%.
Of the many export commodities that Burkina Faso has to offer the world, among them soap, cotton lint and textiles, the CIA World Factbook is strangely silent on the subject of films. I was soon to learn why.
I don’t mean to belittle the sufferings of the people of Burkina Faso. I myself was their fellow sufferer, albeit on a much smaller scale, for the duration of the film. At 95 minutes long, it’s about 90 minutes longer than a more compassionate director would have deemed appropriate. Put simply, this movie was a dud, leaving me wanting to commit cinematic suicide. It’s the sort of film that the more superstitious members of an ancient Mesopotamian tribe would have produced, had they had access to film equipment and a projector.
When the curtains rise, we find ourselves in the mid-1800s kingdom of Mossi (present-day Burkina Faso). King Tanga, ignoring his dying father’s counsel to seek the approval of the elders, has just seized power amid a backdrop of portentous omens from the heavens that involve a lot of people pointing and squinting up at the sun. This is the audience’s first clue that the natives are not possessed of a very scientific turn of mind.
One of the new king’s first acts is to abduct a village girl named Awa, whose chief attraction seems to be the tendency to laugh often and inappropriately at no apparent provocation. Awa and her current betrothed are deeply in love, but the king is not one to let such trivial details stand in his way. With almost indecent haste, Awa becomes the king’s unwilling wife.
Their union is soon blessed when nine months later Prince Salam is born. It doesn’t take long, though, for the new mother to notice some peculiar looking birthmarks on the princely behind, and it quickly becomes apparent to her that he is none other than the son of her former fiancé.
Awa is not the only one seized with foreboding. The local soothsayer weighs in with his opinions too, telling the king that the young prince poses a danger both to King Tanga and to his kingdom. The skies say it all. The bemused king, oblivious to the true parentage of his heir, resents the intrusion of this wet blanket into the festivities, and the unpopular soothsayer is lucky to escape with his life.
But when his kingdom suffers severe drought for the next 12 years, King Tanga begins to wonder if there wasn’t something in what that soothsayer chap was saying, after all. Not one to make rash decisions, he first tries to appease the ancestors with a lot of black hens, but the ancestors aren’t having any of it. Young Salam’s fate is sealed when King Tanga looks in the magic gourd and finds the reflection that looks back at him is that of Salam’s real father. From grief to resignation to action is but the work of an instant. There’s nothing for it but to kill the kid, and the mother too for good measure.
Meanwhile, Salam has grown up to be a strong, sturdy young kid, who’s been mercilessly teased about his oversized front tooth. In one of the many seemingly random side-plots, Awa brings Salam to the local shaman to have the offending tooth pulled, behind which, inexplicably, lies a set of gleaming, perfectly formed teeth that would have any orthodontist beaming with pride. As nobody in the film even seems to notice that this kid has emerged with a smile that looks like an ad for chewing gum, we’re not sure if this is an early sign of his robustness or just sloppy directing.
Be that as it may, Awa is forewarned of the king’s dastardly intentions and packs up young Salam in a hurry. Not one to shun the obvious, she heads straight for her native village. When King Tanga inevitably shows up, seated majestically on horseback with about 50 members of his retinue panting alongside on foot, her parents hold steadfast and bravely challenge him to kill them rather than betray the whereabouts of their daughter. The king is more than happy to oblige. Awa’s father is duly killed, and her mother is left to bemoan this turn of events.
As the next scene opens, Awa and Salam are strolling about in the leisurely, unconcerned manner of people taking in the sights. The vicinity is inexplicably void of any trace of King Tanga or his men, and, sadly, we are forced to conclude that there’s been a dereliction of duty somewhere. We cannot but feel that this shows a lack of the kind of initiative one would hope to find in a royal entourage. A more assiduous team, we feel reprovingly, would have been commending the bodies to the ancestors by now.
By a happy coincidence, the pair soon encounters Awa’s lost love, Salam’s real father, in a reunion that might have been touching, had they been characters from a more well-written film. Through him, Awa learns that both her parents have been murdered. It comes as news to the audience that Awa’s mother has also been murdered, and it goes a long way toward restoring our shaken confidence in the king. Far from the sort of slacking off we had attributed to him, this new turn of events shows a commendable thoroughness. Awa is not the most sensitive plant, so her mourning is brief and confined to expressing the sentiment, “They deserved it. They wouldn’t listen.”
All three together embark on a journey to the home of Salam’s ancestor’s, “over the hill near the river,” but they’re intercepted by King Tanga and his men. Young Salam hides and watches the execution of his parents from a vantage point which leaves him clearly visible to the participants, but apparently they’ve all been squinting at the sun too much for signs of evil omens because nobody sees him. It’s the huge tooth motif all over again, only now we’re more inclined to chalk it up to sloppiness.
It is here that the film, from tottering on the edge of the merely ridiculous, makes the bold leap into the almost lyrically inane.
Fainting from thirst, Salam is rescued by a similarly minded young girl called Sana. Together, they embark on a 15-year quest for the elusive white-collared eagle, who embodies the strength and power that the vengeful young prince aspires to. While more uptight parents might balk at letting their young daughter wander the African savannah unsupervised, Sana’s parents are a supine lot.
Their journey ends when the white-collared eagle obligingly shows up on horseback in human guise. Salam is direct and to the point, preferring to say it with spears. He slays it immediately, but not before this human eagle has had a chance to weigh in with something incomprehensible about a fourth power that Salam has forfeited by his evil deed.
There are some more bizarre, disconnected scenes, culminating in the final encounter of young Salam and his nemesis, King Tanga. King Tanga makes free use of the magical amulets he was given on his ascent to the throne, but he is out-maneuvered every time. Tanga magically sets the plains on fire. Salam magically extinguishes it with a heavy rainfall, the natives probably kicking themselves at not having thought to harness this useful talent during the drought. Tanga metamorphoses into a rather endearing little hare, but before he can hop out of the line of fire he is pierced by one of Salam’s signature spears. Salam finishes him off, and is hailed by the former king’s fickle subjects as their new ruler.
Just as you are heaving a sigh of relief and thanking the ancestors that, despite the lack of any sacrifice of black hens, the movie is drawing to a painful close, enter the inevitable White Man stage left. This one is a particularly abominable representative of the species, in the person of a French army officer ruthlessly overseeing the massacre of the natives with a series of staccato commands, “Feu. Feu. Feu.” I never thought I’d say this, but I think it’s pretty high-minded of the French to have let that scene stand, considering they provided the bulk of the funding.
The young king finds that the spirits are giving him the silent treatment, so he kills himself, gallantly leaving Sana and their newborn son to fend for themselves. Salam’s sole gift to posterity is the philosophy he has charged his widow to impress on the newborn prince, “It does not matter what others think. What matters is that they think as you do.” With these sage words, the film ends.
A kind of stunned silence reigned briefly in the theatre as we all pulled ourselves together. This film had taught us the valuable lesson that with ancient Mossi folklore, quantity is everything. As with so many other things in this world, a little bit might be a good thing, but more than that can easily lead to saturation. We were one audience with but a single thought, “Where’s the exit?”
But we’ve dwelt long enough on this painful subject. Let’s push along to my other cinematic foray, this one a less exotic Italian film called Il Posto dell’Anima (The Palace of the Soul). I hadn’t shown up intending to see it, but I happened to be at the right place at the right time to be on the receiving end of two free tickets.
The movie is clever and funny and entertaining. It’s engaging, and well directed. In fact, the director of the film was actually present at the screening and spoke a few translated words in Italian before the film. A diffident sort of fellow who didn’t seem to be able to make up his mind whether he should stand in the middle of the stage or at the podium off to the side, he looked endearingly bemused by all the attention.
In short, this film is everything that La Colère des Dieux is not. It’s also a heavy-handed propaganda piece. But it was a good enough film to leave me hopping mad, instead of merely contemptuous.
In summary, an evil American-based multinational conglomerate called Carair makes the decision to close its tire manufacturing plant in a small Italian village, putting 500 people out of work. The laid-off workers band together to fight the decision under the leadership of three men – the film’s heroes, Antonio, Salvatore and Mario.
Somewhere along the way, as if sensible that the mere closing of an inefficient plant may not be sufficient in and of itself to rouse the audience’s anger, a new theme is introduced, almost as an afterthought. Largely based on anecdotal evidence, the workers are convinced that they’ve long been exposed to unsafe working conditions in the plant, and don’t have much patience for the dry, scientific medical types who would rather rely on statistical evidence. Among the dangerous toxins they’ve been exposed to, the translation assures us, are antioxidants – those things you may formerly have heard of as being instrumental in the prevention of disease.
It’s never made clear which of the two – the plant’s closing or its unsafe working conditions – is the primary reason for their protests. But this sudden keen interest in workplace safety isn’t the result of any new information that has come to light. Rightly or wrongly, the conditions have been commonly understood to be unsafe for many years, so this cannot be the sole reason for the protests. Nor, as Antonio assures the Carair board of members, is the mere closing of the plant. We later learn that the workers have been stealing and taking bribes, so the closing isn’t entirely unjustified. We’re thus forced to conclude that what really has these workers exercised is that Carair, after many years of having exposed its employees to unacceptable levels of danger, has dashed the expectations of those who assumed these halcyon days would go on forever. The guilt that is to be laid at Carair’s door is that of having ceased to provide an unsafe working environment.
Throughout the film, it is vaguely implied that foreign multinationals in general are heartless, distasteful affairs that can’t be expected to be attuned to the sensitive nuances of the local environment. A local plant, we’re expected to believe, would be above concerning itself with such crass matters as profit. The underlying contradictory assumptions of this type of thinking are that multinationals both do a disservice to its workers by the mere fact of employing them, and that it is simultaneously shirking its obligation by failing to do so. We would all be better off globally if multinationals ceased to exist, but the cessation of their existence is itself a reason for protest.
As an example of the film’s agenda, the three form part of a delegation that is sent to America to reason with Carair’s board members. Antonio stands up to deliver a rousing lecture. He begins in broken English since his hosts don’t understand Italian, but halfway into it he starts to run through a catalogue of expired Carair employees. This is where he picks up steam and really gets going, switching back to his native tongue for greater ease and fluency. The speech culminates with Antonio spitting right in the face of one bemused board member.
I had already become hardened to the spitting motif. Earlier, a local Carair manager’s car had met with similar treatment. What made this instance stand out was that the audience felt sufficiently stirred to express its approval with spontaneous and heartfelt clapping. Unprovoked spitting on an ordinary businessman was perceived as nothing less than an act of heroism.
The movie is not without its own profound symbolism. In a final, manipulative twist, Antonio himself succumbs to a sudden lung disease, in the fashion of many an operatic heroine. The movie ends with Nina, Antonio’s city-dwelling girlfriend, carrying on her late boyfriend’s quest to find the elusive local bear (with uncomfortable shades of the white-collared eagle), and presumably re-discovering the virtues of nature in the small village.
So the moral of the story is, next time you are seized with a yearning for the foreign and exotic, walk hurriedly past the local video store with averted eyes, and, if you must, slake the desire at a Chinese restaurant.