a hallucinated tale in an Ivorian prison


Here is a film about the prison that is unlike any other. The Night of the Kings, second feature film by Ivorian filmmaker Philippe Lacôte, surprises in its aesthetics of dilapidated beauty, as much as it is unexpected in its approach with its inmates who seem to self-manage their confinement in the maze of corridors of a huge prison – it is is a reconstruction of the Abidjan prison and correctional facility (MACA), in buildings in the colonial city of Grand-Bassam, on the edge of the forest.

The film is anchored in the family history of the filmmaker. Philippe Lacôte discovered this prison when he was a child: his mother, co-founder of the Front populaire ivoirien, an opposition party of the Félix Houphouët-Boigny era, was locked up there for a year, and he came to visit him by taking a collective taxi. The director has kept the memory of a strange kingdom, with his king and his lackeys coming and going in all directions… Selected at the Venice Film Festival in 2020 (Orizzonti), The Night of the Kings represented Côte d’Ivoire at the Oscars in 2021.

Read also Philippe Lacôte, the enfant terrible of Ivorian cinema

To enter this hallucinatory tale, you have to put aside the “Western” codes, the bearded stories ofa prophet (2009), by Jacques Audiard, or social comedies in the vein ofA triumph (2020), by Emmanuel Courcol. Here we are at the approach of a full moon night, red and intriguing. For MACA residents, now is the time to go through a strange ritual: the lord of the prison, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu, who starred in Wretched, by Ladj Ly, in 2019), will appoint a man, among the detainees, who will have to tell stories without stopping, all night long. His choice falls on Roman (Koné Bakary), a young person who has just arrived, scared, not knowing what to expect.

This practice of the “night of the kings” is not an invention: it is very common within the MACA, tells us the filmmaker, but it is dramatized here to the extreme, with the idea of ​​the potential death of the storyteller, if by chance he ends his story before daybreak.

Knots and bifurcations

Here is Roman put up to the wall. Like a hero of Thousand and one Night, he begins to unfold the story of a very cruel gang leader, Zama King. A character who really existed, from the gang of “microbes”, named after groups of ultra-violent young people in Abidjan. Zama King was even lynched and burned by the Ivorian population in 2015, because of his crimes. What was his childhood, how did Zama lose his mother and then stray? Roman piles up the soap operas, introducing knots, unexpected bifurcations, desperately trying to keep the inmates’ curiosity awake. The spectator, for his part, navigates between the intimate fate of the characters in the prison and the collective history of a bruised country.

You have 41.02% of this article left to read. The rest is for subscribers only.