First feature by French documaker-anthropologist Eliane de Latour, “Bronx-Barbes” takes viewers into the heart of Africa’s ghettos, where gangs rule by violence and the way out is often in a coffin. Helmer’s intimate knowledge of contemporary West Africa is evi-dent in the colorful dialogue and convincing settings. Yet pic’s thirst to recount every detail of slum life proves a double-edged sword, making it an ethnographic docu first and a product of the storyteller’s art second, with a weak second half. Beyond fests, this well-made French-financed film, shot on the Ivory Coast, should pop up regularly in African programs.
Toussaint (Antony Koulehi Diate) and Nixon (Loss Sylla Ousseni) are teenage pals who can’t find a job and have to steal to eat. When they acci-dentally murder a ganglord one night, they are inducted into the Bronx, a tough ‘hood run by the elders and their sonnies.
Toussaint uses his wits to rise to the top; the more scatter-brained Nixon gets tossed in prison for burglary. At that point, Toussaint ups the stakes to raise money to get him out, turning in his switchblade for an automatic rifle.
Showing the ghetto as a rite of passage for poor young urban Africans – and therefore not all bad – De Latour doesn’t shy away from involving the boys in some brutal scenes. A group rape of a young girl, Mariam (Edwige Dogo), shocks even Toussaint, who returns to court her as his girlfriend. In another shocker, homeowners beat a young thief to death.
When leads finally move on to the ghetto of Barbes, an even tougher life awaits them. However, story runs out of steam well before the end cred-its, swimming in a sea of local color – such as a stretched funeral sequence – that often has no direct bearing on the plot.
A point of interest is the dialogue, reworked by the local actors themselves and filled with amusing slang that comes across even in subtitles. Though modified to a certain extent to be comprehensible to French-speaking auds, the language (Nushi) is still sharp, witty, vulgar and convinc-ing. Also intriguing is extent to which the youths adopt famous Westerners’ names for their monickers–Clinton, Nixon, Capone, Tyson, Chirac, Tu-Pac, etc.
Stephane Fontaine’s widescreen lensing and frequent use of a handheld camera give film a very different look from most African pics – another indication of its mixed French-African roots.