Night of the Kings Philippe Lacote (Cote d’Ivoire, Fr, Can; 2021) Bakary Kone, Steve Tientcheu, Jean Digbeu, Rasame Ouedraogo.
viewed: Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle; 24 July 2021; ticket: £7
If God say ‘Yes!’ then no one can say ‘No!’
MACA, a prison secreted and secured in the middle of the jungle of Cote d’Ivoire. Night of the Kings opens with the transport of a new inmate into this forest redoubt. The gates of MACA open and the new prisoner enters; immediately the whole joint explodes into life in a deafening cacophony of indescribable intensity: metal shell wood cracked together in a crescending visceral overwhelming of being. Both audience and the new inmate know that they have arrived in another world.
Maca is a open prison, run by the inmates who control the day to day regime. Ultimate authority over the inmates resides in the King Rat, Black Beard. It’s an enclosed self referential world that is of course in some significant ways analogous to the condition of many African states. Black Beard may be the titular bossman, but his authority only runs to the internal relations of the gaol, and only so far and so long as the place stays in good order. The King Rat is in effect only an agent of the hidden powers, who are always present, observing what is happening in Maca, ready to intervene if their interests are threatened. And when they decide to make themselves known, they do so with the gun, the instrument of decisive force, crushing the innocent and the guilty, without compunction. Their objective is always to restore the prison to its natural ‘order’, to bring ‘peace’ to their land.
From Maca, as from most African countries, there is no escape. Surrounded by the impenetrable forest, once you are shut up in this prison you are doomed both to live and probably to die there. And as there are no direct lines of escape, the human psyche, with its imperative need to always see a way out, perforce finds its own internalised line of escape in the form of collective delirium. ‘Night of the Kings’ is Philippe Lacote’s visionary mapping of an Africa where for many men there is no escape, they are trapped and no one needs them. The consequence is a collective abandonment into the frenzied transcendence of ritual, a transposed political response to a situation that has become intolerable.
Maca is a delirious world and as such it faithfully replicates the salient features of the world in which it is contained. What is Africa if not a prison? Al Shabab, the Janjaweed, the Lord’s Resistance Army, Boko Haram these movements are the collective psychotic lines of escape that find their cathectic outlet in the delirium of violence: ritual beheadings and rape.
A mood of violence transgression and despair underlies ‘Night of the Kings’, but until its finale, Lacote’s script sublimates the violent compression of male energy and desperation into ecstatic ritualised dance and percussive response to the ‘story’ told by Roman.
It is this story that structures the scenario giving the film a mythic resonance and depth. The new boy on the block, whose entrance into Maca we see in the first sequence of the film, is transformed into ‘Roman’, the griot, the storyteller. But like Sheherahazard, story telling comes with a twist in the tale. Roman is charged with telling a story to the prisoners on Red Moon night, and like Sheherahazard if he finishes his story before day break his life is forfeit. The use of a time limited device brilliantly energises the action and heightens the tensions that Lacote uses to actualise his film.
And the story that Roman tells is a contemporary African story. In the West the word ‘story’ has been appropriated by the quasi ideological idea of self determination. Stories are justifying instruments for individuals and groupings that allow them to make sense of their lives and validate their existence. Stories are always fabrications. They are often shaped moulded rigged, untidy bits omitted, to fit a specifically desired framing. But stories can also be chaotic discontinuities characterised by lacuna and multiplying series of alternative tellings. These perhaps are African stories, without clear beginning or end, an eternity of being now in the middle of hallucination, a story that is a schizo state of mind, not a end state. And this is the story Roman tells to the blood flesh and sweat of the prisoners on the Night of the Kings. An African Story, an incoherence that reflects the reality of these lands.
There is a burgeoning output from African film makers, with many outstanding filmmakers such as Sissako, Sembene. But Lacote’s movie is one of the very few that tackles straight on the reality of post colonial male dislocation and its consequences. We see generations deracinated, generations of deterritorialised broken male psyches left in chaos with only the delirium of belief systems as a line of escape, belief systems that justify maleness and the force of the male. This is not the only reality in Africa but it is becoming increasingly familiar across the Continent and can now be seen as one of the defining features of the post colonial era. The issue remains what of the voices of women in this time. At the moment they are mute and muted, and we need to hear them.