The French-Ivorian director’s memories of visiting his mother in Abidjan’s notorious La Maca prison had a major impact on the Sundance favourite. He speaks to Chris Harvey about violence, magical realism and neo-colonialism
Jegn a densely forested national park at the edge of one of Africa’s most populous cities, Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire, stand the enormous concrete walls of La Maca prison. The trees press up against them. Inside those walls are upwards of 5,000 prisoners, in buildings designed to house 1,500 – dire conditions that have been criticised by Amnesty International.
It was here as a seven-year-old boy that French-Ivorian director Philippe Lacôte would visit his mother, a democracy activist working to end one-party rule in the country, which became independent in 1960. She was held in La Maca for a year, and her son would go to see her every week. Mingling and observing, Lacôte came to know a place that was a kingdom like no other, with its own rules and hierarchies.
His vivid memories of it have found their way into his phantasmagorical Night of the Kings, an award-winning sensation at the Sundance Film Festival, in which fantasy and myth find their place in this all-too-real hell on earth. It’s mesmeric and prickling with tension, but unlike most prison movies, violence rarely happens on screen. “I don’t want to shoot violence,” Lacôte tells me via Zoom. “There is enough violence; everywhere you watch a film or put on your TV, you will see violence. I’m interested in why it happens.”
He speaks with the formal clarity of the natural French speaker; his attitude is understandable. Lacôte himself was injured in a serious machete attack by a gang of youths in December 2019, while finishing the film, and required three operations for wounds to his head, leg and hand. He appears fully recovered when we chat, full of ideas and plans for the future, which seem certain to involve his first Hollywood movie. He wants to find the right project, selv om. Judging by the scripts he has been sent, han sier, he may have to adopt a more linear style of narrative than the complex structures and multiple flashbacks of his work so far.
Night of the Kings is Lacôte’s second feature, after his admired debut Run (2014), but in the long gap in-between, he has co-directed a documentary series on slavery for the French culture channel Arte. “In England, you have lots of things [about slavery],” he tells me, “but in France, it’s like a taboo; it doesn’t exist.” His tone speaks disbelief.
“In Africa, we are influenced always by slavery and by colonisation," han sier. “In Europe, it is time to reconnect [with it]. Slavery is a crime, colonisation is a crime… I think the time is now to recognise this crime – and that it continues to affect Afro-descendant people in Europe.”
What reparations should there be? “Money, selvfølgelig," han sier. He notes that Britain seemed furious at the idea put forward by Jamaica’s culture minister Olivia Grange earlier this month that the former colony intends to seek financial redress – reportedly more than £7bn – for “unparalleled atrocities” in Africa and the Caribbean.
“Europe is an economy built illegally on the slavery of Black people,” Lacôte says, “so it means money, it means economic reparation.”
He expresses concern, også, about neo-colonialism, asserting that the arrest of former president Laurent Gbagbo in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011 was by French troops – Lacôte includes documentary footage of the moment in Night of the Kings – suggesting regime change engineered by a western power. “It’s impossible to say that Ivory Coast is independent, economically or politically," han sier. “We are not independent. We are still fighting for this. We are not independent culturally either. In Africa, we receive a lot of images from the world, but we don’t send enough.”
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The differences between western and African culture are writ large in Night of the Kings. In the film, the ailing Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) is the unofficial ruler of the jail; he faces a reckoning with the code of honour that demands that when he becomes too ill to rule, he must take his own life. When a new inmate arrives – a young gang member played by Bakary Koné – he is chosen to take on the role of “Roman”, the storyteller, on the night of the “red moon”. If he accepts, he must spin a tale to his captive audience, but unbeknown to him, if it finishes before daybreak, they will kill him.
Some of its characters are based on real people, Lacôte tells me. Blackbeard is based on the gangster Yacou le Chinois (shot and killed during a prison mutiny at La Maca in 2016). And the fabled young gang leader Zama King, who is at the heart of Roman’s story, was the head of a violent gang of eight-to-18-year-olds; he was lynched by the public, Lacôte says. Even the central conceit of the film is based on truth – the prisoners really do pick out an individual to be “Roman”. Yet Lacote blends these factual elements with fantasy and his own imagination, introducing West African myth alongside verité. “Our reality is not the same as in Europe," han sier. “There’s a border between magical things and realistic things, the invisible world and the visible world, dead people, alive people – and this border is very fine. ‘Magical realism’ for us is ‘reality’.”
Other elements give the film a hallucinatory quality. Singers that Lacôte plucked from the beach, where they normally scratch a basic living, function as a sort of Greek chorus in the film, while professional dancers sinuously enact lines from Roman’s story, enhancing the sense of ritual. Many inspirations flow into the film. Lacôte worked as a projectionist in Paris when he was studying linguistics there as a young man, and has a love of early French cinema and the work of directors such as Jean Vigo, Cocteau and Abel Gance, as well as modern original Leos Carax (en av Holy Motors director’s muses, Denis Lavant, has a cameo in Night of the Kings). There’s also a little nod to the influence of City of God (2002) – “for me, Brazilian cinema is a good mix between the spectacular and the personal”.
It’s an influence that can be seen in the film’s beautiful, colour-rich cinematography, although there is perhaps something of A Prophet’s uncompromising jail-cell power politics, også. It certainly feels a long way from the classic American prison movie.
I wonder if Lacôte gets angry at the way Western corporations such as Amazon take ideas from African culture – the streaming platform is adapting Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel Anansi Boys, which features the West African trickster god as its main character. “I’m not angry because the world is very large," han sier. What he finds more frustrating is the Western idea of Africa as a single entity. “It’s three times bigger than Europe,” he notes. “Can you say that a Spanish guy is the same as a Swedish guy? It’s not possible.
“In Europe, there are a lot of clichés about Africa,” he adds; en av dem, he suggests, is that African cinema should somehow have “purity”. What is the purity of Africa? I dag, in each village in Ivory Coast, you will have Chinese machines. So we want to break this cliché; we want to say that Africa has modernity, has complexity. And inside this modernity, we try to deal with our tradition.”
‘Night of the Kings’ is available in cinemas and on digital now. For more information visit altitude.film