I recently attended a screening of the film "Da Monzon" by Sidi Diabaté. This film won the FESPACO prize this year in the feature film category. The event was supposed to have a discussion with Diabaté, but unfortunately he had to return to Mali. Luckily, he has given interviews, which help me to better understand the film.
"Da Monzon" is a historical film, depicting the Segu kingdom in the former half of the 19th Century. A son succeeds his father and begins expanding his territory. He is particularly focused on overcoming Bassi, a nearby Fulani king.The film follows his quest to expand his kingdom through political maneuvering, clever ruses, and military campaigns.
Between the Modern Languages program at Penn, the Ritz theaters in Philadelphia, and several years of living in France, I've had the opportunity to see a large variety of films by Francophone directors. As far as I recall, this is the first film that I've seen from West Africa of the historical epic genre. It was thrilling to see names and places I knew from books come to life on screen. The details of the settings, as well as the dazzling variety of clothing and objects, were amazing to see. Were I to have been able to speak with Diabaté, I would have liked to know his sources for these objects, since they date from before the invention of photography.
While the film was very enjoyable, it was also very one-sided. The narrative was engaging, but although the action did switch to Bassi's kingdom, it did not investigate his motives, nor how or why he had defeated Da's father. This is a common drawback to historical films; in order to make them interesting, they flatten some of the events and don't show or investigate the complexity of the historical events themselves. Similar examples are "Lion of the Desert," "Lawrence of Arabia," and "Gandhi". There's nothing wrong with this flattening in terms of story-telling, but since these films are sometimes the only encounter viewers have with the history they depict, it leads to an overly simplified understanding of history and a tendency to idealize the past.
Another interesting aspect to the film was the representation of relationships and reciprocity. I'm familiar with the idea of “caste” in West African societies and also the function of people occupying the position of “griot” to question, tease and deliver bad news. There's even a scene where the “griot” figure is faced with an angry person and shouts “You cannot kill a casted man!” The depiction of women in the film was also striking. Da routinely consults a matriarch figure and seeks advice from her. The representation of the character Niyale, who is sent to seduce and trick Bassi is also remarkable, especially when she discusses being selected for this mission with her husband and parents. The status of women in West Africa is complex today, so there is no reason to suppose it was not complex 200 years ago, but it was nonetheless notable that Diabaté chose to include these scenes.
Additionally, the film highlighted the complexity of the pre-colonial religious landscape, including both Islamic and varied indigenous beliefs and the king seeking support from multiple different religious leaders. It is easy to fall into the error of thinking that because the centers of Islamic learning Timbuktu and Djenné are in Mali that Islam is the main religious reference, so the film served as a helpful reminder of Mali's diversity. If Diabaté had been able to attend the screening, I would have liked to ask him if he was trying to make any kind of point by highlighting this diversity.
Film and definitions of identity through film are a huge interest of mine. Da Monzon's win at FESPACO is not only a great honor for Mali and also and important encouragement for the arts in Mali, but also an opportunity for West Africans to consider their historical past and how they relate to these historical heroic figures. I was very grateful for the opportunity to see the film here in Philadelphia and disappointed not to be able to have a conversation with Diabaté, but it certainly adds another facet to my understanding of West Africa.