Niger documaker Rahmatou Keita understandably dedicates “Al’leessi … An African Actress,” her feature portrait of thesp Zalika Souley, “to the pioneers of African cinema.” Souley was one of the first African women hired to act in front of the camera, and, although she didn’t quite grasp the power of movies when she started in the mid-’60s, she was a key figure in post-colonial Africa’s cinema in its early years. Berlin and Los Angeles fest playdates should precede other prime screenings for a docu that will have a special place in African cinephile libraries.
Keita shows Souley in her present circumstances, barely making ends meet as she raises a family in the outskirts of Niger’s capital city, Niamey. The ex-actor says she never saved nor planned ahead. But, seeing an artist — once considered an icon in her country — who has fallen so far, is shocking. (A closing graphic reveals Souley has now moved abroad, where she works as a maid.)
In her hey-day, Souley was unlike anything ever seen before in Niger, a deeply Muslim and traditional culture: A young, vibrant actor who typically played bad girl parts that didn’t take a backseat to the guys’ roles. The die was cast with her debut in Moustapha Alassane’s 1966 “Hands Up!” (theatrically re-released in France in 1990 and unspooled at Los Angeles and Berlin festivals), where she played the only woman in a gang of youths who don cowboy costumes and become horse-riding desperadoes.
Souley tells Keita that make-believe was hard for her to grasp at first. She thought a kiss on screen meant the two people were really in love. But under gifted directors as Alassane, Mahmane Bakabe, Adamu Halilu and the late Oumarou Ganda (whose career arc as a filmmaker and collapse roughly matches Souley’s), Souley fashioned a roster of colorful roles. Keita uses clips from many of her pics, including Ganda’s “Satan,” in which Souley plays bad to the hilt.
Souley’s screen persona drew the wrath of fundamentalist Muslims, and, like many artists, Souley found herself clashing with conservative religious figures. Nonetheless, Souley became relatively wealthy and her country’s government sent her to various film festivals (including several in the former Soviet Union) as a national star.
Keita’s archival work is splendid, as is her unobtrusive camera that was given nearly full access to Souley’s private life. Several touching, unexpected music cues include a clip of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.”