Philippe Lacôte honors Ivory Coast’s legacy of storytelling with ‘Night of the Kings’
Ivorian writer-director Philippe Lacôte wasn’t born into a family of griots — the ancestral West African chroniclers and fabulists foundational to the cultural memory of the region. Only those who are part of a centuries-old lineage can hold the distinguished position. Yet, through his films, vivid impressions that weave the past and present of Ivory Coast, Lacôte has already risen as a sort of cinematic griot, a modern keeper of his people’s history.
“Night of the Kings,” Lacôte’s newest production (shortlisted for the international feature film Oscar), unfurls inside La Maca, a penitentiary nestled in a forest near the country’s capital and the filmmaker’s birthplace, Abidjan. Within its walls, inmates are in charge. Collectively, they have constructed their own mythology and moral codes. Currently on premium VOD, the film also will be available for one week starting March 8 on the cinema social-media site Letterbxd, in a $19.99 package with five of distributor Neon’s other awards contenders, including “Dear Comrades!”
On the fateful night we enter this beguiling microcosm, as a red moon shines, its frail leader, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), will vacate the throne. But for the transition of power to occur as peacefully as possible in a place with warring factions, a brand new and terrified young prisoner is designated as the official tale teller or Roman (Bakary Koné).
His task is to captivate the audience for the entire evening. The longer he enraptures them with his declamation, the longer he stays alive. Spinning a vibrant yarn with a time-traveling chronology, the coerced raconteur transports those in his presence and the viewer through episodes of fantastical battles and recent turmoil.
“Africans are brilliant storytellers. And so a film that is a story about a storyteller feels like a perfect summation of how vital story is in African culture,” David Oyelowo told The Times from England. The British-Nigerian actor first saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. Impressed, he decided to come on board as executive producer.
Several years ago, Lacôte crossed paths with a childhood friend who had served time at La Maca. That’s how he learned about the prison population’s unique practice of selecting a person, who they do in fact call Roman, to entertain them with a story every night. Stunned, the filmmaker thought the premise had all the makings of a great saga: a compelling character, a narrative device and a singular atmosphere.
“I decided to make ‘Night of the Kings’ because this story of my childhood friend was connected with my own story. When I was a child, my mother was imprisoned in La Maca for political reasons and I traveled once a week on a collective taxi to see her,” Lacôte said via video call from Abidjan.
“For me as a child it was like a kingdom, with kings and queens, and I kept very strong images and sounds from this place.” He recalls these visits not with a veneer of sadness but pride. Even at his young age he knew his mother was there because she had fought for democracy under the autocratic rule of Félix Houphouët-Boigny.
As a child, Lacôte discovered the movies at a theater called Magic Cinema near his home. His mother often would drop him off while she ran errands and return to pick him sometimes 20 minutes, sometimes an hour later. He rarely got to see a complete film. That segmented manner of consuming stories is something he believes has influenced his work.
Of all his truncated escapades there, one stands apart for him. He remembers watching a Bruce Lee film with a scene where a villain was about to attack the hero from behind. Suddenly a man in the audience, deeply invested in the action, jumped from his seat with a knife and stabbed the bad guy onscreen. He didn’t get to see the resolution but the incident was earth-shattering for young Lacôte.
“It was at that moment I decided to one day become a director. I realized that this medium, this art form, represents a strong reality and a strong dream at the same time,” he explained.
As he grew older and moved to France, that dream would dissipate momentarily. Fascinated with human communication, Lacôte first thought of becoming a linguist — a pursuit not unrelated to his interest in the study and preservation of a people’s identity. Uninterested in being a teacher, he changed course and started working as a radio reporter and then as an assistant in a radio drama. Eventually, his childhood dream came calling and he once again took another route.
“I started working as a projectionist in an art-house cinema, because I didn’t know anyone in the industry. The only person I knew in cinema when I was a child was the projectionist, so I said, ‘OK, if you want to make cinema, this is the way.’” The move later led him to work in distribution, in a lab and finally in production. Throughout these multiple transitions he made black-and-white expressionist short films shot on 35mm and 16mm film stock.
After residing in France for a large portion of his life, Lacôte returned to Ivory Coast in 2002 with a digital camera. His intention was to make a portrait of his childhood friends and their generation. Three days into his return, the First Ivorian Civil War began. He spent the next seven years shooting the documentary “Chronicles of War in the Ivory Coast.”
For that project, the filmmaker interviewed a young nationalist fighter during the conflict. Learning about the multifaceted experiences that led him to violence inspired Lacôte to write his first fiction work, 2014’s “Run.” Both “Run” and “Night of the Kings” feature youthful male protagonists without names — their moniker is taken from the circumstances they face — and have a nonlinear structure that relies on flashbacks or dreamscapes. More importantly, the two movies reflect the artist’s concern for young Ivorians.
Philippe Lacôte’s second feature, which will represent Ivory Coast in the Oscar race for best international feature, is a heady weave of contemporary grit and mythic enchantment.
“In Ivory Coast around 70% of the population is under 30 years old, so when you speak about young people you speak about the country, you speak about the political problems of the country. When a politician wants to start a rebellion or a strike, they use young people. It’s important for me to speak about them and how their stories collide with the larger history of my country,” Lacôte noted.
“Night of the Kings” builds a bridge between the past and the present by turning its main character, a novice criminal who grew up during the Second Ivorian Civil War that commenced in 2011, into a regal griot fearfully commanding over the crowd. “Griots are very important in West Africa because they have three functions; one is to tell stories, another is to sing the praises of the queen or the king, and also to keep the history of the kingdom. This means that in our culture there’s no difference between real events, legend and poetry. These three levels are the same for us,” he said.
As if narrated by one of those orators, the film interlaces political affairs, ancient loyalty and concrete events in the life of notorious offender Zama King, all through the vignettes Roman conjures up. From La Maca, where the majority of the plot unfolds, “Night of the Kings” can just as easily jump to precolonial times when African royalty governed, where Lacôte deploys a striking, visual effects-heavy battle between shape-shifting siblings, or to recent times when Zama King (based on a real individual) terrorizes the streets.
The director built a cohesive but unconventional whole out of all these excerpts like his ancestors have done with all of human consciousness in their stories.
“Most films follow the main highway. The director has a straight road in his mind and doesn’t want to go left or right from that. But for me cinema is a real power, and it can call on different elements and bring them together. I wanted to pay tribute to griots and to the oral tradition of storytellers in West Africa. I didn’t want to make it in a direct, old world, way,” he explained.
Intentionally, Lacôte also invoked “Arabian Nights.” In the true story he heard about La Maca, the inmates don’t kill the storyteller. He took that idea from Scheherazade’s situation. “I put this element in my story because I wanted to have minute-by-minute tension. Scheherazade, like Roman, is obliged to perform, to continue her story. They are obliged to have wonderful ideas to survive. It was interesting to put my character in such life-or-death emergency. “
In addition to the sequences illustrating what Roman recounts, there’s also an element of live performance. The spectators, his fellow convicts, occasionally interpret his recollections through dance and engaged reactions. They replay what Roman tells them. Lacôte didn’t want to use the prison only as a landing to come back to after each of the magical realist instances; instead, he involved the entire cast in the storytelling.
“I wanted to put this story in the bodies of the prisoners,” he explained. “I wanted to film all these performers, these Black bodies as human beings. A Black body is not a slave body and it’s not a sexualized body. It’s a natural body.”
Oyelowo agrees with that vision: “There’s often an exotic objectification of black male bodies in cinema. I found that through the eyes of Philippe there was an unapologetic beauty to how they were depicted. There wasn’t an overly sexualized quality to them. It was indisputably beautiful to see that many dark-skinned men together in a film, all shapes and sizes, all coming at this story from different angles. That’s something that you very rarely see in films.”
For more than two years, Lacôte organized auditions to find the cast. He saw 2,000 people from multiple neighborhoods in Abidjan. Eventually he selected 40 people — a mixed group that featured martial arts fighters, dancers, singers and young actors — and organized a two-month workshop. About a quarter of the extras had been previously incarcerated.
Koné Bakary, who plays Roman, was one of the young men who responded to the casting call. He came from the area where the real Zama King was killed. Although Lacôte’s first impression of his skills was disappointing, Bakary soon became deeply involved in this process, until he was offered the part.
French character actor Denis Lavant (“Beau Travail,” “Holy Motors”), on the other hand, was Lacôte’s top pick to play Silence, the only white resident of La Maca, who cautions Roman about his destiny if he stops talking. Lavant had appeared in some of Lacôte’s short films. For the director, putting him in “Night of the Kings” represented a link between his work in Europe and Africa. Also of note is Laetitia Ky, an Ivorian artist famous for creating incredible sculptures with her hair, as a powerful queen.
Because the production was unable to shoot inside La Maca for long periods of time, the movie was mostly filmed in the city of Grand-Bassam, where Lacôte and his team repurposed two vacant buildings to re-create the prison. With cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille, Lacôte decided to use oil lamps, both for authenticity since that’s what’s used inside and to imbue the images with an alluring ambience. Since they were working with many first-time actors, there were no rigid lighting setups, which allowed the cast freedom of movement. The camera moved with them and not the other way around.
Lacôte wasn’t interested in the institution of prison but rather in how those inside create a community. As opposed to the individual cell typical in correctional facilities in the U.S. or Europe, the open, collective cells of La Maca were ideal for this approach. “I wanted to observe their laws and their beliefs, because the production of stories, poetry and imagination is not exclusive to universities or political circles, it also comes from the marginalized.”
Centering the rise and demise of Zama King, a criminal caught and lynched by a civilian mob, also forced the director to interrogate how, in the aftermath of years of armed conflict, brutality went from being perpetrated by the military to seeping into civil society. “My work is poetic but it also questions violence in my country,” said Lacôte. His intention is not to show gruesome imagery but to spark thoughtful discourse about it. Part of that conversation involves exalting the time before foreign oppression entered their reality.
“It’s important to go back to this traditional history of Africa because before colonialism we were not slaves. We were not subjects of colonial powers. We were living in our culture,” he explained. “It’s important to bring all this richness, all these songs, all these mystical things, all this beauty, but to bring it and confront it with modern times.”
“In the past we have seen what depictions of Africa look like from an outside gaze. They are almost always through the eyes of Westerners, of white people, and therefore you are sort of crowbarring white protagonists as the ones who are leading an African narrative. Inevitably, if you have an outsider point of view, that is where this sort of exotic gaze on African life and the African body come in,” added Oyelowo.
Before Lacôte’s fiction debut, “Run,” and now “Night of the Kings,” the Ivory Coast had not entered a film for Academy Award consideration since 1976, when “Black and White in Color” by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud won the Oscar for foreign-language film.
While he respects the noted auteur, Lacôte admits he has never seen the film. “This film is not culturally important for Ivory Coast and people don’t know it here. It was partly shot in Ivory Coast and was seen as an opportunity to take the Ivorian flag to the Oscars.” Proud to represent his homeland with a truly Ivorian story, Lacôte appreciates the fact that “Night of the Kings” has earned acclaim on the international stage. Yet his motivation doesn’t stem from a desire for praise from abroad. His impetus is to give Ivorians a voice.
“What’s most important for me it to make films within our culture, with our vision,” he said. “We want to participate in cinema, as African people, as Ivorian people. We are left out of the economic and political decisions of the world. We don’t want to be left out of cinema. It’s time for African stories to be told.”
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