It’s just a few days more than a fortnight since the end of the 44th Gothenburg Film Festival. Before too much of it evaporates from my memory, I want to review one film: Night of the Kings. (La nuit des roi in the original.) The one of all the 20-odd features and shorts that I saw that was both a story, and about story.
Choosing films at the GFF
Every year before I attend the festival, I sit down with the catalogue to pick out the films I want to see. My choice depends on a raft of different criteria.
On a very mundane level, but practical, the time when the film is showing and my opportunity to see it is one. The illustrative photograph in the catalogue is another. Since I go out of my way to choose films other than ones I would go to the cinema to see, I always check the principal language of the film. I look for the film’s country of origin and the nationality of the director. I read each film’s blurb. In our catalogue that’s written by members of the GFF committee and/or professional film critics. Sometimes I might even go onto the IMDb to see what kind of score other filmgoers have given a film.
I like to think of myself as a creative writer and I have an interest in how stories are made. For this reason I also look out for films which not only tell a story, but also talk about the process of storytelling.
That’s how I make my shortlist.
In the process of making my choice I often develop an idea in advance about the films I have chosen. It’s always interesting to discover how right I was, but more interesting to discover how wrong.
This year, the film I’d decided in advance would be my film about storytelling turned out to be completely other. Tove, about the creator of the Momintroll books, Tove Jansson, is a good but rather conventional bio pic. It focuses on a short period in the author’s life. The 10-15 years when she was becoming known for her children’s books. And turning one of them into a stage play. But all that is backdrop to the film’s real focus. This is her passionate love affair with the upper class theatre director Vivica Bandler.
Instead, the film this year that had most to say about storytelling was Night of the Kings. A French language film from Ivory Coast.
Roman in La MACA
The film is set in a prison. La MACA – La Maison d’Arrêt et de Correction d’Abidjan – is built within the forest of a national park near to Abidjan. The prison is guarded by armed guards, but inside its walls the prisoners are the ones in charge.
A nameless young man, a pickpocket sentenced to prison, arrives and is inducted. He joins the inmates at a crucial moment. The prison kingpin, Blackbeard, is being challenged. Blackbeard knows that his time has come, and he knows he has to die. He buys himself a few hours by invoking the myth of “the red moon”. He names the young man “Roman” and gives him the role of prison storyteller (grioter).
The newly named Roman discovers he has to tell a story to the prisoners all through the night. But if he finishes the story before dawn, he must die.
Night of the Kings
Unlike Scheherazade in a similar position, Roman comes all unprepared. He starts by telling a story that is too soon over. Fortunately he realises his mistake and explains that he has started in the wrong place. To tell the story he must go back and start again. This happens a couple of times.
The story begins among the Microbes, a gang of Abidjan street urchins of which Roman was a member. It tells the story of of the gang’s leader, “King” Zama, his arrest and death. Then it jumps back to Zama’s childhood and into a mythical history of magical kings and queens – and storytellers who buy their lives with stories. Stories that convey universal truths and preserve the memories of fabulous events.
The fantasies of Roman’s creation are told in the film in parallel with the stories of the prisoners during the night. On the one hand is the Greek chorus of prisoners who, caught up in the stories Roman is telling, act and dance out parts of the tale.
On the other, there’s the bloody rivalry to succeed Blackbeard. One of his lieutenants is murdered. Another tries to get Blackbeard to nominate him as successor. At the same time the man who challenged Blackbeard in the first place schemes with his lieutenants. There’s a riot and the prison guards, outside of the prisoners’ compound, use their guns to re-establish a kind of order. Eventually the red moon sets, the sun rises and Roman has survived the night.
Between different worlds
Philippe Lacôte, the director: “This ritual of Roman telling stories is a real practice in La MACA, but they don’t kill the narrator.” He says this in an interview he gave on the CNN website when Night of the Kings was shown at the Venice Film Festival in September.
Asked about the meshing in the film of story, mythology and the gritty events in the prison, Lacôte says that making films in Africa it is necessary to do so from an African perspective. In Ivory Coast “the border is very fine between real things and magical things, invisible worlds and physical worlds, dead people and alive people.” The film has to move in the same way between different worlds.
At the same time, although the film doesn’t set out to be a metaphor, “when you see this prison, how people want to take power, it’s difficult not to think about Ivory Coast, about our leaders, about the fight we are in for 20 years now.”
Scheherazade’s story concludes, after she has survived 1001 nights, when she presents the Sultan with the children she has borne him while in his palace, telling her stories every night to save her life. The Sultan recognises his love for her and accepts that she has saved herself. She has also saved him from the black resolution he made never again to risk betrayal, killing each new wife before their wedding night was over.
Night of the Kings does not end nearly as neatly. Roman is relieved to have survived the night. But he is not free. He is still a prisoner. We don’t know whether he will continue to have to spin his yarns night after night, or if he will be able to rest on his laurels.
For the film, it is enough. For me, I find myself asking: “And then?”
Illustrations are all stills taken from the trailer for the film on the IMDb here: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi3580674329