A young pickpocket is locked up amongst hardened criminals in the notorious MACA prison on the outskirts of Abidjan. As a red moon rises, he’s chosen by the prison boss to be the new “Roman” who, in keeping with tradition, must tell a story to the other inmates. Uncertain what grim fate awaits if he fails to keep them entertained, he begins to tell the tale of a legendary outlaw, knowing he has no choice but to make the story last until dawn.

“Night of the Kings” is the sophomore feature from Ivorian director Philippe Lacôte, whose debut, “Run,” premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in 2014. Starring newcomer Koné Bakary, it world premiered in the Horizons sidebar of the Venice Film Festival, and competes this week in the main competition of the Thessaloniki Film Festival.

The film, which was also selected for Toronto and the New York Film Festival, is produced by French production outfit Banshee Films in coproduction with Abidjan-based Wassakara Productions, Peripheria (Canada), and Yennenga Production (Senegal). Memento Films Intl. is handling world sales. Neon acquired U.S. rights.

Lacôte, who also wrote the film’s script, said he was inspired by the memories of his childhood visits to the real-life MACA prison, where his mother was incarcerated as a political prisoner. On his visits he would mix freely with the inmates wandering the wards. “I was listening to this prison’s language,” he said. “It was a world that I loved to observe, even if I wasn’t able to decode everything. I had the impression of being at the court of some archaic kingdom with all its princes and lackeys.”

Years later, the director grew interested in prison “as a place where the balance of power we can find in our societies” is upended and reconfigured.” Beyond this “social reality,” however, Lacôte wanted to explore prison as a place where narratives are created. “What stories are told in prison? What fantasy can be developed when your body is locked up?” he asked. “I uphold the idea that every human group living in the same place for a certain duration of time creates a culture. And every culture generates poetry.”

The particular culture depicted in “Night of the Kings” is based partly on the stories Lacôte heard from a childhood friend who had been released from MACA prison, and who described to him the real-life ritual in which an inmate is chosen to be a storyteller. The role of the “Roman” in the film echoes the traditional place held by the griot in West African societies, who in “an essentially oral culture [is] the one nurturing the social fabric,” said Lacôte.

“The griot acts as a storyteller, historian and praise singer, but these three things can’t exist without each other,” he continued. “That’s what my narrator ‘Roman’ does when he transforms the life of a real character into a myth. Throughout his story he goes from realism to magic, from political fact to legend. Roman’s storytelling in the middle of the prison resonates with the art of the griots. Like them, his story is punctuated by songs.” The director also drew inspiration from contemporary urban culture. “It is close to battles or stage performance.”

The film’s Scheherazade-style storytelling conceit allowed Lacôte to shuttle between contemporary and ancient times, simultaneously presenting the audience with glimpses of pre-colonial West African society while depicting how the past and present clash today. “What fascinates me in contemporary Africa is how different times live in the same space,” he said. “For example, some Dozos hunters playing their own role in the film are wearing traditional costumes full of amulets with Puma shoes!”

Lacôte’s first feature, “Run,” followed a young man on the run after assassinating the country’s prime minister. “Night of the Kings” tells the story of a crime boss who comes to power during the 2010 political crisis over disputed elections that almost plunged Ivory Coast back into civil war. Though neither film is an overtly political statement, the director said he wants “to show how these individual paths collide with collective history.”

“‘Run,’ like ‘Night of the Kings,’ depicts young men evolving in a territory in crisis,” he said. “‘Night of the Kings’ says that Africa is perhaps the very last ancient theater of today, where tragedy and the stakes of power unfurl in a raw, frontal and eminently visual manner.”

How that plays out over the course of a single, blood-moon night in the film is suggested by the words scrawled across a prison wall: “If God says yes, no one can say no.” “The notion of destiny is underlying all my characters’ journeys. Almost like an invisible thread running through their lives,” said Lacôte. “But it doesn’t mean they don’t have free will.” Instead, the Roman’s willingness to accept his fate “will give him the strength to free himself with his own words, and allow him to reveal himself as a storyteller.”