REVIEW: DVD Release: The Night Of Truth

Film: The Night Of Truth
Release date: 24th April 2006
Certificate: 18
Running time: 100 mins
Director: Fanta Regina Nacro
Starring: Moussa Cisse, Adama Ouedraogo, Rasmane Ouedraogo, Georgette Pare
Genre: Drama
Studio: BFI
Format: DVD
Country: Burkina Faso/France

When it comes to Sub-Saharan African cinema, there has always been a tendency, in the West at least, to highlight ‘firsts’ – first film by a Black African, first feature by a Black African, first film to come out of (insert country) – leading to a de-valuing of the product itself. Such is the paucity in terms numbers of productions which reach Western screens, it can be difficult to avoid highlighting the significance of the fact that the film was made at all, instead of discussing its merits, or indeed its weaknesses. Sound the fanfare, then, for “the first feature film by a woman from Burkina Faso.”

Set in a fictional African country, combining the Dioula language common to several areas in and around Burkina Faso, and the French which constitutes the lingua franca of a colonial legacy, the film centres around one night of seemingly inevitable denouement.

Having been at war for years, and both tainted by the perpetration of innumerable atrocities, the President and the rebel leader, Colonel Theo, come together with their soldiers to negotiate a peace agreement between the Bonandé and Nayak tribes – also fictional. The meeting is based in the model of Truth and Reconciliation, which has spread from South Africa to a number other guises, and the film is combines references to conflicts from Rwanda to Yugoslavia in a engaging vision of international humanism…

As the characters attempt to come to terms with their own actions, and facing those of their sworn enemies, the film moves into an almost Shakespearian theatricality, compelling us with a confined space and a resulting pressured claustrophobia. The theatrical feel is enhanced by the rituals performed in exorcism of the past and the use of stock characters from West African storytelling, such as Tomoto, recognisable in Western traditions as ‘the fool’. Played by the always superb Adama Ouedraogo – see Sembene’s Moolaade, or any number of Idrissa Ouedraogo’s films – Tomoto brings much-needed comic relief to proceedings, but his role is not left to such a simple summation, as his mischievous imprudence and bigoted ethnic prejudices threaten to derail proceedings.

It may at times seem like the acting is excessively played up and somewhat flat, with great gesticulating movements, and some predictable responses, though it is important to bear in mind the allegorical use of hyperbole pervading the entire film. At crucial moments, characters act out of turn, maintaining an admirable degree of tension in a relatively simple narrative. In using a heavily fictionalised context, the film is able to draw us into the perspective of both sides, without the weight of history bearing on our judgements. Indeed its moralising is always present, but never decisive, inviting only reflection and discussion. The respective idiosyncrasies of each tribe’s culture are presented for giggling disparagement, often at Tomoto’s cheeky behest, without pulling the film itself down into accusations of fostering prejudice.

Visually, the film continues in the very distinctive cinematic aesthetic that is common to most Sub-Saharan Francophone African cinema, with long, slow shots and minimal editing. The stillness and quiet of the rural compound setting is brought out with meditative images, illustrating the symbolism ascribed the Sahelian landscape. We are given a number of cues to the beauty of the land and the culture, sitting uneasily alongside the constantly looming threat of a descent into bloody violence and vengeful brutality.

Cultural markers, such as drumming, dances and foodstuffs, evoke painfully vivid memories in the characters, conveyed through a number of flashbacks which slowly reveal the horrible extent of la verité. The graceful refinement of Edna, the President’s wife, is gradually replaced by a vicious monstrosity in the mould of Lady Macbeth, as she succumbs to, or is overcome by, the very vendetta mentality that the meeting was set up to avoid. Similarly the imperious and authoritarian Colonel Theo descends into shattered remorse as the suppressed memory of his participation in the conflict takes over.

Seamlessly combining the heavily political commentary of early Francophone African filmmakers, such as Sembene, with the lyrical, visually appealing and allegorical approach favoured by her predecessors in Burkina Faso, Nacro’s film is at once engaging, enjoyable and terrifying. If you are new to Sub-Saharan Francophone African cinema, or indeed to African cinema as a whole, The Night Of Truth is quite a good place to start - its numerous awards from festivals around the world attesting to the translatability of its message and film language.

Slowness and uncomfortable viewing are often bandied as compliments in the world of international art cinema, and it may be only the film’s overt and, at times, baffling theatricality which we may feel is a little too hard to swallow. On the whole, however, the film is a triumph.

Fanta Régina Nacro’s The Night Of Truth is a stunning and harrowing tale, easily succeeding in surpassing being flagged up as yet another ‘first’ in African cinema. 

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