The premise is a simple one: three hired guns extract and protect a druglord but find themselves seeking shelter in a remote village in Saloum, Senegal, when their transport malfunctions, landing them in a situation they could never predict. With that alone, writer/director Jean Luc Herbulot (Dealer) and producer/co-story developer Pamela Diop have an intriguing if not action-packed tale on their hands. It would literally be enough to get anyone to take notice. What follows, however, is far more than what the premise suggests, as the creative team utilize the natural and spiritual power of their filming location to craft something as sinister as it is hopeful, something as unique as it is universal, and all with a cast capable of making us believe in legends.
Known as Bangui’s Hyenas, Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah), and Minuit (Mentor Ba) are brothers in arms who have been through numerous encounters together and have only survived due to their faith and trust in each other. Their latest job puts the three on a transport mission to protect local druglord Felix (Renaud Farah) and transport him to Dekar, Botswana. All is going according to plan until their transport is sabotaged, forcing them to travel to a remote village Chaka’s familiar with. The three try to make the best of a bad situation, but as the plan continually goes wrong, a mistrust begins to form. As danger begins to surround them, the Hyenas must pull it together before it’s too late.
There’s some truly unexpected beauty in Saloum, which falls to the technical and performative aspects of the film. In the opening sequence, we’re shown a child, holding a gun in one hand and a chain in the other, walking into water, the sun and moon visible overhead, all while a narrator talks of the bittersweetness of revenge. The duality of the celestial objects with the image of the child evoking a transformation, one which we will not understand immediately, but shall become clear by the end. The scene establishes an undercurrent theme which explores the idea of a legend while also making for a startling opening. But before our questions can fully form, Herbulot throws us into 2003 where we meet Chaka, Rafa, and Minuit amid a firefight. The way they move is deadly, their actions rhythmically in sync with each other and with the score from Reksider. In the press notes, Herbulot speaks to the internationalism of integrating historical and spiritual aspects of Africa into the film and one can’t help but take note that, before the written word, we told our stories with our senses. That the Hyenas move in rhythm with a score only we can hear, that sometimes that score rises up to take the place of a yell or a scream, carries forward this feeling of integration of the old ways with the new. Almost more important to that, what we learn of the Hyenas comes from two places: their actions and what we’re told of them. At no point does the audience get a lecture on who they are from the Hyenas themselves. We can see their closeness, the trust, the frustration, the love, all of it, in their verbal and body language. Because Herbulot requires us to learn about them from others, we, the audience, find ourselves believing in the legend of the Hyenas as much as anyone, enabling the choices they make moving forward to be both extraordinary and deeply human. It’s difficult to write about Saloum in the abstract and still convey the impressiveness of the undertaking, but everyone should go into the film as blind as possible.
What can be discussed with relative ease is the performance from each of the cast members. Gael, Sallah, and Ba make up the central three and their individual conviction makes the belief in their characters absolute throughout. Gael’s Chaka is their leader, Sallah’s Rafa is the muscle, and Ba’s Minuit (or Midnight, in the press notes) is the spiritual guide. From their first scene together, we can tell that the characters are not only each individually well-trained, but are in harmony as a unit. Considering that the entire story is roughly 80 minutes in length, it’s a credit to Gael, Sallah, and Ba that the audience not only comes to understand them, but also to believe in them. Rounding out the central cast is Bruno Henry as Omar, the operator of the compound the Hyenas take shelter in for a time, and Evelyne Ily Juhen as Awa, a deaf mute staying at Omar’s compound. Like many action films, it all starts with a plan that goes sideways and the rest of the time is spent managing the fallout to manageable means. Henry’s Omar and Juhen’s Awa are the flies in the ointment, if you will, as their methods of doing business either ruffle Chaka or Rafa, respectively, with each actor bringing to life a person with their own specters hiding underneath the surface, like each of the Hyenas. In a way, that’s the best way to describe the film: nothing is as it seems, which, of course, goes all the way back to that opening sequence.
Credit to cinematographer Gregory Corandi in a big way as the look of the film ties directly into the emotionality and complexity of the narrative themes. Herbulot and Diop both mention in the press notes how they wanted to make a film distinctly African and Corandi captures each location in a way rarely seen, especially in American-made films. Even when recording a desert plain, there remains vibrancy and energy, a determination that mirrors that of the Hyenas. Though some cinematography evokes shakey-cam in several action sequences, it appears less to cover any special effects or narrative weaknesses and more to evoke disorientation. The issue there is that the invocation of the technique gives the film a found-footage vibe that the rest of the tale does not.
Though this is the first time I’m covering Fantastic Fest (hurrah, virtual option!), its reputation for screening unusual, wild, or inspired cinema is fairly common. Herbulot’s Saloum exemplifies this beautifully. Narratively, it’s deceptively complex, while visually, it’s almost lyrical. Within the scope of a tight 80 minutes, not only do we, the audience, get set forth on a journey comprised of bullets and death, but we’re also treated to an exploration of trauma (both personal and cultural) which uses the history of a land to cultivate something horrifying. Though at times the frequent use of shaky-cam instills more physical discomfort than visual confusion, there remains a targeted purpose to everything we see, hear, and experience within Saloum. Styled like a poem, it ends where it begins and we’re all the better for experiencing it.
Screening Thursday, September 30th at 6:30p at the South Lamar Fantastic Fest 2021 location.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.