Many African filmmakers feelcompelled to take a stand for or against local traditions and rituals, especially when they come into conflict with modern social, medical and technical advances. “Kabala” chooses the emotionally uncompelling solution of having it both ways, showing the effectiveness of both magic spells and dynamite. This first feature by the Mali-born, Moscow VGIK-trained director Assane Kouyate stumbles over a clunky script but makes up some lost ground in eye-catching visuals. Its exposure in Cannes’ Critics Week should encourage distribs of African material to give it a careful look.
Pic’s best qualities are displayed in its poetic opener when old Babji, troubled about his son Hamalla, consults a mud-painted oracle sitting motionless on a rock. Underlined by a haunting African score, the scene captures not only the exotic quality of local beliefs but relates them to the natural world in which the villagers live (here, the rock; in other scenes, fire and wind). It also leaves no doubt as to the power of traditional ways.
In contrast to this ancient spiritual authority is the cruelty of social custom. The young hero Hamalla (Modibo Traore) loses all social standing in the village when his father reveals he is the illegimate son of Yassa, an old woman shunned as a witch because her legitimate children and husband have all died. Hamalla leaves the village in shame and after four years comes back an outcast. He finds that Sonoka (Djeneba Kone), the girl who loves him, is being married off to the villainous Seriba (Fily Traore). Even worse, all his attempts to clean up the holy water well, a dangerous source of cholera, are fiercely opposed by the the village’s official sorceror Fakourou (Sory Ibrahima Koita). Story painfully harps on the modern/conservative conflict until a series of dramatic events, aided by magic, push the villagers into Hamalla’s camp.
A stronger screenplay would have avoided getting lost in complicated plot convolutions, which are breezily set out in mucho subtitled dialogue. One of the few sequences that works dramatically is the genuinely comic story of Seriba’s wedding, a miserable failure because Yassa casts a spell of impotence on him. Under the amused and scornful eyes of the villagers, he runs off to the sorceror for counter-spells.
A well-chosen cast, lead by the angry, dignified and wily Modibo Traore as Hamalla, battle some seriously stilted dialogue to flesh out the characters. Simple f/x are enough to visualize magic spells, and pic’s selection of local music is a major plus.