Reviewed by: Sunil Chauhan

Dahomey won the Golden Bear
"Vigorously covering all bases, Diop cuts elegantly to give each position ample space." | Photo: Les Films Du Bal - Fanta Sy

"Cultural heritage is immaterial and material," says a student in the second part of Mati Diop’s account of the return of artefacts from France to Benin in 2021, a snapshot of the current pressure on former colonial powers to repatriate their museum pieces. The student is one of several who take the podium in what is the most charged and inspiring part of this slender but stirring documentary, a glimpse of academic debate that suggests future conservation in Benin and its attendant issues will be in safe hands.

What precedes it is a forensic Frederick Wiseman-like procedural, following the transportation of pieces, including a statue of 17th century leader King Ghezo from their positions in Paris’ Musee du Quai Branly to where their journey first began before being plundered by French troops in the late 1800s. Where the film departs from standard documentary fare is in Diop’s imaginative choice to anthropomorphise Ghezo. As Dahomey’s key character, we hear him narrate his thoughts on being trapped in the darkness of a wooden box to reflecting on his own existence and history. Sonically rendered so that his voice sounds like someone communicating from a vast tomb across centuries, it gives Dahomey feet in both sci-fi and documentary forms, lent further otherworldliness by a score from Dean Blunt and Wally Badarou (every bit as good as Fatima Al Qadiri’s music for Diop’s previous Atlantics).

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Shots of neon-lit settings bookend the film, but Dahomey is visually otherwise an unintrusive, neatly framed observational work. Diop’s subjects, from curators and museum staff to dignitaries arriving to visit the pieces and the students all remain anonymous, but collectively present a riposte to suggestions that former colonies don’t care for what they have lost. Dahomey is never didactic however, with the students’ exchanges providing a fittingly dialectical debate for this thorny subject, from suggestions that the energy expended on reacquiring historical artefacts would be better spent on improving the lives of poor Beninese, questioning the political motivations behind the move and asking why only 26 of some 7000 pieces have been returned, to whether viewing these items as art contradicts their original meaning, function and context, and if relocating these pieces will truly bolster national identity.

Vigorously covering all bases, Diop cuts elegantly to give each position ample space. And yet, Dahomey is a somewhat slight piece. It smartly avoids labouring its points, but at 67 minutes, keeps a certain distance from the wider knottiness of its themes. Regardless, it is a rare hybrid, one with pleasures both intellectual and aesthetic, and in its more fantastical moments, mischievous, moving and beguiling.

Reviewed on: 27 Feb 2024
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Dahomey packshot
Documentary about the return of artworks to Benin that were looted by French colonisers.

Director: Mati Diop

Year: 2024

Runtime: 68 minutes

Country: France, Senegal, Benin


BIFF 2024

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