JOHANNESBURG — When a Boeing cargo plane crashed in northern Mali in 2009, just minutes after taking off from a remote air strip in the desert, investigators who arrived on the scene soon made a startling announcement: the plane was believed to be carrying up to 10 tons of cocaine from Venezuela, all of which had vanished without a trace after the crash.
While that tale of international intrigue wasn’t the direct inspiration for “Wùlu,” French-Malian helmer Daouda Coulibaly’s riveting debut, the director recalls how the mysterious Boeing crash forced many Malians to recognize for the first time the scale of the drug trade using West Africa as a transit point between Latin America and Europe.
That trade was the launching pad for his fast-paced, “Scarface”-style portrait of a young Malian hustler seduced by a life of crime.
For Coulibaly, who was born to parents of Malian and Guinean descent in Marseilles, the film is as much a tale of one man’s rough underworld education as it is a reflection of the helmer’s cinematic schooling.
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While the director acknowledges the influence on his work of African auteurs like countryman Souleymane Cissé, the kinetic pacing of “Wùlu” suggests an even greater debt to the likes of Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese. It also reflects the vision of a younger generation of African filmmakers whose inspiration is increasingly urban and global.
“This is a different time,” he says.
Coulibaly is a product of Focus Features’ Africa First program, an initiative that for six years offered funding, mentorship, and distribution deals to young African talent, before being shuttered in 2013. The program, which awarded $10,000 toward the production of a short film, helped Coulibaly and more than two dozen emerging filmmakers from across the continent get exposure on the international stage.
The first three shorts to come out of the program – “The Tunnel,” by South Africa’s Jenna Bass; “Pumzi,” by Kenya’s Wanuri Kahui; and “Saint Louis Blues,” by Senegal’s Dyana Gaye – world premiered at Sundance. Coulibaly’s “Tinye So” traveled to the New York African Film Festival, the BFI London film fest, Milan, and Dubai. Gaye’s feature debut, “Under the Starry Sky,” bowed in Toronto, while Bass’ “Love the One You Love” won a slew of awards after its world premiere at the Durban film fest, while also earning nominations in Busan and Gothenburg.
For “Wùlu,” Coulibaly spent two years scouting locations in Mali. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” he says. But just two months before principal photography was about to begin, Islamic militants attacked a restaurant in Bamako, killing five. Coulibaly and his producers suddenly wondered if the risks were too high. While they’d planned to spend six weeks on location in Mali, it was in neighboring Senegal that they decided to lens most of the film.
The decision weighed heavily on Coulibaly, who almost abandoned the project. But in the end, he believes he made a stronger movie because of it. “The problems is that when you shoot, you don’t work anymore. You just execute,” he says. “The fact that I changed things, it pushed me to be creative.”
Despite lensing mostly in Senegal, “Wùlu,” which takes its title from a rite of passage among the Bambara people of Mali, is still deeply rooted in Malian culture. Coulibaly first visited the country at an early age, but it was as a teenager that his interest began to grow.
Fatherhood would later help him to recognize the importance of teaching his two young children about their roots, and he relocated the family to Bamako for four years before returning to France in 2015.
While Coulibaly says he’s “very proud…[to be] an African filmmaker,” he doesn’t want that to inform the lens through which audiences watch his movies.
“If it’s a thriller, it’s a drama, it’s still seen as an ‘African film,’” he says. “We still have this kind of attitude [where] people keep seeing your stories as ‘African.’
“I’m not an activist,” he says. “I just want to make films.”