Patrick Mulcahy on a modern Arabian Nights
Set in the infamous La Maca prison in Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire, Night of the Kings is a gripping, non-naturalistic drama in which a new inmate (Bakary Koné) is reluctantly anointed ‘Roman’ (storyteller) and is tasked with entertaining other prisoners on the night of the red moon. He is threatened with the hook by Barbe Noire (Steve Tienchieu), aka Black Beard, the prison’s Dangoro – the equivalent of a Mafia Godfather. Barbe Noire needs oxygen to survive. His time is almost up and is yet to anoint a successor. Meanwhile, Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté) prepares to take over. “We will stop making prisoners our slaves and make them our customers,” he says with a grin, a comment on how mercantilism is a form of subjugation. In a packed courtyard, heaving with an audience who respond theatrically to his words, Roman tentatively steps onto a box and tells the story of Zama King, the infamous leader of the Microbes – the gang’s name is apparently taken from their fictitious counterpart in the film, City of God – with whom he hung out.
Right from the off, Roman – we never find out his real name – informs us that he is no storyteller. However, he accepts the role. “If God made us killers, then we’re killers. If God made me Roman, I am Roman,” he declaims to the expectant crowd. The film’s writer-director, Philippe Lacôte, is no conventional storyteller either. He does not explain how La Maca came, according to one of the wardens, to be the only prison run by a prisoner, though a lack of staff might have something to do with it. Roman mythologises Zama, claiming he was the son of a blind man and that Zama’s mother was killed in scenes that seem to take place in another time and a more rural place.
Roman is a latter day Scheherazade, the narrator of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, who told a series of stories to the king, who resolved to kill her once she had finished. Scheherazade kept herself alive by only telling half the story until daybreak, then finishing it the next night before starting another and so on. Roman’s story focuses on how the infamous criminal met his fate at the hands of an angry mob, before going back to the beginning. A group of inmates act out Roman’s words through threatening and powerful dance-like gestures. In parallel, Barbe Noire prepares to drown himself.
On one level, the film is a meditation on fatalism. Yet Roman is advised by another prisoner – the ironically named Silence (Denis Levant, playing La Maca’s only white inmate) – that, like Scheherazade, he must never finish his story. Roman should endeavour to survive, though what sort of future he faces isn’t clear.
Levant has been cast to link Lacôte’s film to Beau Travail, Claire Denis’ 1999 film set in Djibouti in which Levant appeared. Just as Denis took a character from Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Le Petit Soldat (played by Michel Subor) and put him in Beau Travail, so Lacôte took Levant’s character from Beau Travail and put him in Night of the Kings. It is a touch designed to appeal to cineastes but also a way for Lacôte, who arrived at filmmaking through journalism, to acknowledge his influences – Denis’ film also turned action into choreography. It is also an acknowledgement that all stories are based on other stories, all histories are based on other histories. There isn’t a culturally pure form of storytelling, authentic only to a particular region – which is another way of saying there is no pure, perfect form of African cinema.
As you watch the film, hoping for Roman’s survival, you also wonder what effect Lacôte hopes to achieve. His film does not offer an activism narrative, pleading for prison reform or to address social inequality in Côte D’Ivoire. Rather Lacôte suggests that his characters should stand outside their history, to separate themselves from the roles – and names – they have been assigned. Lacôte is saying to his audience – not distinguishing between African and European – that you always have possibilities. You need not be defined by your environment, the slum where you grew up, the choices you made at a certain point. Although the film is normally about one Zama King, the multiple ‘kings’ in the title is important. We can all be royalty in our own minds.