SFF REVIEW: Saloum (2021)

It is a constant struggle for African cinema to receive the attention and exposure that it deserves, which is why it is such a pleasure to see this year’s Sydney Film Festival include Jean Luc Herbelot’s 2021 multi-genre feature Saloum. Herbelot is Congolese; his new film was produced in Senegal. It is a wonderfully slippery and unexpected work, and it dances nimbly from action to thriller to bleak character drama and beyond. Part of the pleasure comes from experiencing those shifts and turns as they come; as a result Saloum joins a select rank of films where what it is promoted as and what it actually is are not necessarily the same thing. That makes for a marvellous 80 minutes of fast, frantic entertainment.

The film begins with three mercenaries – Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah), and Minuit (Mentor Ba) – evacuating a Spanish drug kingpin and his money from a violent coup d’etat in Guinea-Bissau. Their plan is to fly to the comparative safety of Dakar, but when their plane’s fuel tank is pierced during the escape they are forced to make a landing in the middle of Senegal’s remote Saloum Delta. They make their way to the nearest village in search of resin and petrol, and find an oddly prosperous holiday retreat managed by the genial Omar (Bruno Henry).

There is an immediate and ominous contrast between the grizzled, notorious mercenaries (known across Africa as the “Bangui Hyenas”) and the hipster-esque commune they discover. Rafa and Minuit want to get in and out as fast as they can, but Chaka lingers. It is clear he is harbouring a secret. It is clear half the characters in the film have secrets, whether the overly charming Omar, deaf visitor Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), or a local police chief (Ndiaga Mbow) whose arrival in the village seems suspiciously timed at best.

This is not simply a film produced in West Africa: it is dominated by African culture, history, and politics. The film as presented simply would not work in any other location or cultural context. Herbelot – co-writing with producer Pamela Diop – handles these aspects powerfully and with impressive nuance, whether it is the region’s awful history of child soldiers, or its traditions and folklore.

It features a strong cast, particularly its three mercenary leads. Evelyne Ily Juhen does great work as Awa, although it must be noted that the actor herself does not appear to be hearing-impaired or non-verbal. (If anybody reading here knows for sure, be sure to leave a comment; I’m happy to make an edit.) Despite Juhen’s clear talent, there is almost certainly at least one deaf actor in Senegal who missed out on the perfect role.

The aggressive pace of the film helps it along enormously. There is no room to breathe or to rest, and the constant shifts in character, tone, and genre make it an energetic and refreshing watch. It is also aided by the uniquely beautiful Senegalese setting: all dusty deserts and shallow lagoons. The production values are outstanding. This looks, sounds, and moves with the confidence and sheen of a world-class piece of cinema.

I always encourage film enthusiasts to watch as broad a range of cinema as possible. Saloum is a perfect example of the exact sort of movie we should all be seeking out. It is intelligent, stylish, and wonderfully original. It is currently screening at the Sydney Film Festival, and looks likely – given its distribution arrangements – to be streaming internationally on Shudder in the near future.

Saloum is screening at the 2022 Sydney Film Festival. For more information, check out the SFF website here.

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