West Africans conscripted into the French army, who fought in far-flung lands for causes emphatically not their own, would not normally qualify as the stuff of laughter. But in “Tasuma,” a gentle comedy about a village elder trying to collect his long-delayed veteran’s pension, helmer Daniel Kollo Sanou (“Paweogo”) fashions a jaunty fable whereby old-time military know-how and tribal values trump the complacency of spineless politicos and unctuous traders. Though probably too low-key to attract arthouse auds, “Tasuma” attests to the vitality of new African filmmakers who, like Abderrahmane Sissako, find cultural meaning in textures and rhythms of everyday exchange.
In the character of Sogo (Mamadou Zerbo), Sanou celebrates a generation whose apparent dependency on the vestiges of colonialism conceals a stubborn resiliency. At first glance, Sogo, pedaling obstinately along on his bike, seems a comic, Tati-like eccentric, out of touch with the modern world. Fighting strictly for his own pension, Sogo seems unconcerned by larger social issues and unmoved by the fact that African soldiers’ pensions are a fraction of what the French ex-combatants receive.
With seeming naivete, and against the advice of friends, Sogo goes into debt to buy what is very likely a second-hand mill, destined to be utilized by the women of the village so they no longer have to crush grain by hand.
When due to a clerical error Sogo is summoned to pick up his pension, which has inexplicably been mired in red tape for years, he dons his old uniform, with an impressive fruit salad array of medals, and sets off on his bicycle to town. But the money fails to materialize, and Sogo is met with further refusals and delays.
Fed up, he takes a hostage and forces him to write to De Gaulle (even though he’s dead), whereupon he is arrested and thrown in jail. The women of the village, having successfully fought off creditors trying to repossess the mill, now descend upon the town and force authorities to release Sogo. Faced with an angry band of women, the cowed officials even expedite Sogo’s pension.
Sogo’s story seems already to belong, if not to legend, then at least to folklore, every phase of conflict and resolution passing almost immediately into song, with Cheick Tidiane Seck’s score appropriately alternating tribal and colonial musical legacies in lighthearted counterpoint. Sogo is wont to burst into nostalgic French army duets with his ex-sergeant.
Meanwhile, the village fool (an ex-teacher who runs around taking imaginary pictures with a toy camera) announces Sogo’s comings and goings in daily installments as separate verses of an ongoing Gallic ditty. Finally, Sogo’s importance to the community is lauded in Dioula by the local songstress, with occasional backup from a Greek chorus of appreciative village women.
Tech credits are up to the usual high Burkina Faso standards. Nara Keo Kosai’s bright lensing casually contrasts the ramshackle artificiality of the town with the earth-toned integrity of the village.