An unusual and vibrant piece set in recent colonial Africa, “Twiste a Poponguine” tackles serious material with an arresting light touch and signals a notable new talent in producer/director/writer Moussa Sene Absa. The mix of cultures old and new produces a universal tale that should break out of the festival circuit and land solidly in arthouse distribution internationally.
Set in the mid-1960s in a small Senegalese village, the story centers on a group of teenagers who’ve cast off century-old traditions for Western fashions and music. With a nod to “West Side Story,” they divide into gangs. The French-influenced Les Ins adopt the names of Gallic pop stars, while the Kings prefer American rhythm and blues.
Granted, it’s a small universe, with the gangs consisting of but three members. Johnny Hallyday’s group has the monopoly on the town’s two girls, but the Kings own the only record player — a Teppaz — outside of the big city.
The elders look on with a combination of amusement and dismay. The shock of the new is never clearer than when one of the wealthy merchants imports a television and puts an end to the local pastime of watching shadow puppets.
Sene Absa packs a lot of history into his script and re-creates the transitional era affectionately. Its comedic tone allows him to weave in some telling issues about cultures intrinsically at odds. Ultimately, it’s his confidence in humanity that wins the day and makes “Twiste a Poponguine” a very satisfying entertainment.
The filmmakers overcome modest tech resources with energy and wit. It’s a handsome production that one would be hard-pressed to guess had been shot on Beta. The cast is uniformly terrific and the picture is a surprise, a delight and a genuine discovery.