Humans are governed by rules and beliefs. How these can be enforced directly and indirectly, with or without violence, and how these intertwine is what I ended up paying attention to while I watched “Night of the Kings”, a French-speaking film from Côte d’Ivoire/Ivory Coast, directed by Philippe Lacôte. The opening scene captured not just the confusion and disorientation we all feel when entering a space where we don’t know the rules, but also the fear one can feel if that space is an infamous prison.
We the viewers, along with the protagonist who just got there slowly learn the rules, which in this case includes that the prison has a Dangoro, an informal ruler, a kind of king whose orders and words everyone accepts. The newcomer doesn’t know this yet, neither does he know that the current king is dying and the new, potential ones are vying for his place and not afraid to use any means necessary to get there. So what does he have he can fall back onto: only his past experiences and beliefs. Having grown up in a semi-anarchic neighborhood, he knows and believes that power rules.
He also knows that he doesn’t have enough physical power to become important in the strictly hierarchical structure of prison. He is most surprised when Blackbeard, the dying Dangoro, asks him to tell a story in a formal setting at night. Turns out that Blackbeard invoked the rule that he can stay Dangoro while a storyteller tells a story during the special night. There are more rules around this ritual that come alight, some have consequences for the storyteller’s life.
The story that the nameless (we never learn his name in the film) storyteller tells is also about a king, King Zama, a gang leader. Zama’s real or fictional background also includes mythical rulers who fought in the past with each other. So, the title of the movie is really appropriate: kings are playing at all levels here. The last scenes though remind all of us, who are the real kingmakers: those who create and can enforce the rules.
Rules only work if they are enforced by outside powers or if you internalize them. If there is no outside force and you don’t have an inner value system that suggests to follow them you will stop doing so. In this movie’s prisons, the rules are clear for those who are aware of them and are clearly enforced whether you know them or not. Our storyteller is lucky and intelligent enough to believe when he is told that if he stops telling the story before the sun comes up he is finished. So keeps going on, working the room, feeling when the ebbs and flows of the vibe, and successfully fends off the accusation of only keep talking to save his life.
I shared a little bit about the story and the thoughts it invoked me but not much about the cinematic experience. It is not just a magical realist film, but a magical one too. The created atmosphere is tangible, the rhythm of the film is tight, the acting is natural, the setting is simple and symbolic, the movements of both camera and people are horrifically fluid. All of these are evoking classical dramas and it has every right to be up there with them as a modern incarnation of a classic tale with African spinnings.
I watched this movie as part of the French speaking film festival, “Frankofón Filmnapok” in Hungary, so I saw it under the Hungarian title “Az éjszaka meséi”.
Facebook page, IMDB summary: “A young man is sent to “La Maca”, a prison of Ivory Coast in the middle of the forest ruled by its prisoners. With the red moon rising, he is designated by the Boss to be the new “Roman” and must tell a story to the other prisoners.”