Night Of The Kings

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Night Of The Kings
"Everything here is wrapped in layers of fiction." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Which group of people is most likely to survive a harsh prison environment mentally intact? Study after study suggests that it's not the strongest, not the most aggressive, nor even the cleverest: it's those who are good at telling stories.

Thrown into the notorious La MACA jail outside Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire, our young hero (Bakary Koné) does not expect to survive long. He is not a storyteller - at least not until he is ordered to be and, accordingly, given the name Roman. This is a prison where the prisoners are in control, with their Dangoro, Barbe Noire (Blackbeard, played by Steve Tientcheu) ruling with an iron fist. It is the night of the red moon and so, as prison ritual dictates, a sacrifice must be made. If Roman cannot tell a story that holds the prisoners' attention from dusk till dawn, he will lose his life. But tonight is different, because tonight other inmates are scheming to assassinate the Dangoro himself.

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Everything here is wrapped in layers of fiction. The factories and shops near the prison have gone; here we see only orange sand and mile upon mile of forest stretching out in all directions. The red moon casts curious shadows. Barbe Noire is ill and knows he can't last long but wields power whilst he can through a hierarchy of invented structures and folk beliefs. The inmates' need for structure assures compliance. As Roman tells his tale they eagerly participate, initial jeers giving way to applause and then to dance, which sees some of them act out the characters in the story, and singing, championing its hero. Though loosely based on the boss of Roman's former gang, this figure is immediately imbued with a magical realist quality and a history dating back centuries. The elaborate costumes and rituals displayed in the collective imaginary here hint at the when we were kings and queens myths commonly used in parts of Africa which suffered heavy slave raids as a means of cultural resistance.

Director Philippe Lacôte's mother once served time in the real MACA. One imagines that its transformation here reflects in part the way it looked to a child's eyes. Here, however, there is only one woman, the transgender Sexy (Gbazi Yves Landry), who consequently comes to play every traditional female role within the hierarchy. She is virgin, mother and whore, a potential kingmaker and a visionary who might glimpse men's futures. She provides a point of contrast to the hypermasculinity of the two factional leaders vying to become the next Dangoro.

Roman must somehow keep every faction happy as he weaves his tale, not quite understanding what Barbe Noire wants of him. His story is, in itself, nonsensical, and everybody knows that, but by giving them a glimpse of wider possibilities it provides a form of escape. By situating the world of the prison within a wider one, it reintroduces the notion that action have consequence and reminds the inmates why the fictions they live by matter - why, living in a lawless world, it is necessary for them to adhere to laws that have sprung from the collective imagination. The alternative is a far more dangerous kind of madness.

Paralleling aspects of Côte D'Ivoire's history and containing no small measure of satire, Night Of The Kings is, nevertheless, much more wide ranging in its exploration of the way societies develop and what keeps them together. La nuit Des Rois is, in its origins, a reference to the 12th day of Christmas, the day when European tradition has it that the masters become the servants and the servants become the masters. Caught up in this chaos, Roman and Barbe Noire are inherently transgressive, ambiguous characters, providing a service but also leading others. The latter has seen something in the former. Could it be the future?

Night Of The Kings is messy and distracted after the manner of the improvised tale at its heart. It doesn't always make narrative sense but thematically it's strong. It's also bold, cleverly choreographed and gorgeously lensed by Tobie Marier-Robitaille. From ancient story elements, Lacôte has created a true original.

Reviewed on: 08 Feb 2021
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A young man is sent to La Maca, a prison of Ivory Coast in the middle of the forest ruled by its prisoners. With the red moon rising, he is designated by the Boss to be the new Roman and must tell a story to the other prisoners.

Director: Philippe Lacôte

Writer: Philippe Lacôte

Starring: Issaka Sawadogo, Steve Tientcheu, Abdoul Karim Konaté

Year: 2020

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: France, Canada, Côte d'Ivoire


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