Though perhaps a tad simplistic in approach, this beautifully made pic is a powerful African production that has a very good chance of making a commercial mark in territories like France (which features in the plot) and at festivals. Quality TV also beckons for this sometimes fascinating excursion into a little-seen world.
Gonaba — well played by Eriq Ebouaney, an actor with considerable screen presence — is a French-educated intellectual who returns to his unnamed country determined to improve things for his people. The boatman taking him home, however, just laughs at him.
Ten years later, Gonaba has achieved very little. He’s become a minor functionary, responsible for schools. But, he chafes at what he sees as the tragedy that has befallen his country thanks to the corrupt regime ruling this one-party state.
At an Independence Day parade, presided over by The Prefect (presumably the country’s President), who wears a military uniform, Gonaba concludes there is actually little to celebrate (“Education zero, health zero, teachers not paid, police corrupted to the bones, an army of repression”).
Although scenes resonate with scathing satire, the targets seem a bit obvious (The Prefect remarks that the forest industries are prospering, “despite the ecologists”). Still, directors Didier Ouenangare and Bassek ba Kobhio make their point powerfully.
Gonaba meets the sultry Simone (Nadege Beausson-Diagne) and there’s an instant attraction. She spends the night with him agreeing — somewhat unbelievably — to accompany him into the hinterland on a school inspection.
In the provincial town of Bilolo he finds that here, like in the capital city, members of the minority pygmy tribe are treated like second-class citizens. His contact with the pygmies proves not to be what he expected.
Beautifully photographed by Pierre-Olivier Larrieu at difficult jungle locations, including the pygmy village of Akungu, the film develops into an unusual journey of discovery. At one point, the very progressive Gonaba is told that, though he’s a black man, he thinks like a white man. The film angrily attacks French-educated upper-class blacks who fritter away their advantages ignoring the plight of their people. Gonaba is seen as a noble exception, although a naive one.
The entire production is impeccably made, with a high level of technical expertise. Performances are relaxed and naturalistic down the line.