Reviewed by: Stephanie Brown

"Once in a while a director like Gillard comes along as a reminder of the entrancing possibilities of cinema." | Photo: Courtesy of Acid at Cannes

Simon Coulibaly Gillard’s Aya transports the audience to the fictional island off the Ivory Coast, with stunning photography, dreamlike direction and the crisp sound of the sand and water. Gillard constructs a breathtaking simulation into the life of Aya and the people around her with documentary-style visuals, and a heartwarming character study of a young woman’s undying love for her birthplace.

Aya is a free spirit, a child at heart who spends her days foraging for coconuts, walking by the sea into the night sky, and sailing with her boyfriend, Junior (Junior Asse). Her mother, despite her deep adoration for Aya, fails to understand why she never longs for more. And, as the sea moves closer inland, Aya realises her only real dream is for everything to remain the same.

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It’s becoming increasingly difficult to become completely absorbed in cinema. With an endless amount of streaming platforms a click away, digesting numerous films a week is the new normal, and while many flicks can blur thanks to binge culture - it’s harder to become completely immersed into the world onscreen. Then once in a while a director like Gillard comes along as a reminder of the entrancing possibilities of cinema.

Gillard’s direction juxtaposes documentary-style camerawork with an ethereal mood that guides the narrative through the melancholic graves, to the vibrancy of the island life that moves beside them. The opposing forces within the tone and visuals reflect the metaphysical realities at the core: the unobservable transitions between life and death, youth and growing older, our place of origin and the spaces we end up in between.

The character of Aya will stay with audiences long after the credits roll. Marie-Josée Degny Kokora’s performance is captivating - encapsulating the radiant joy of the freedom of youth, entangled with the impending doom of responsibility, change, and sacrifice.

Gillard explores the hard-hitting truths of population displacement because of the earth’s acceleration towards climate change, shining an intoxicating lens on the people most affected. Perhaps the hidden stories of the indigenous populace facing exile within Gillard’s fictional landscape may escape universal comprehension, but the character of Aya is a sombre reminder of the aesthetic gaze within us all that, piece by piece, begins to dull.

Reviewed on: 15 Jul 2021
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Aya lives on an island with her mum and brother, as flooding threatens her house, Aya makes a choice.

Director: Simon Coulibaly Gillard

Writer: Simon Coulibaly Gillard

Starring: Marie-Josée Degny Kokoram, Junior Asse, Patricia Egnabayou, Mariam Traore

Year: 2021

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Belgium, France


Cannes 2021

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