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‘Zinder’ Review: A Plain, Punchy Postcard From the Meanest Streets of Niger

The gangster underworld of an African desert city is fascinatingly probed in native filmmaker Aicha Macky's unfussy documentary.

Zinder
Courtesy of Visions du Réel

In “Zinder,” Nigerien director Aicha Macky announces up front her relationship to the desert city that lends her film its name. “I am a daughter of Zinder,” states an introductory title card, capping a more detached scroll of facts about the city’s historical legacy of crime, poverty and social division. This is the last time that Macky will assert any intimate knowledge of her hometown, which she otherwise approaches with an outsider’s curiosity. For Zinder, it emerges, is a place of drastically separate districts and social strata: Checking her privilege early on, Macky plunges into the deprived neighborhood of Kara Kara, traditionally a place to which lepers and other social outcasts were banished, and where bloody, destitute gang culture continues to thrive.

The short, straightforward documentary that follows is a vividly observed chronicle of tough, unforgiving streets. What keeps “Zinder” from feeling touristic, however, is the tension between shock and familiarity in its point of view: It’s a study that feels eye-opening for filmmaker and audience alike. Premiering at this year’s Visions du Réel festival, Macky’s second feature should get ample further play on the docfest circuit, joining a growing movement of nonfiction African filmmaking with an indigenous perspective. Specialist documentary distributors and streaming platforms may show interest too, while the film’s trim 83-minute running time could feasibly be further condensed for television slots.

Rather than Macky herself — who eschews any voiceover or onscreen presence — our guides through the dusty sidewalks and shanties of Kara Kara are a talkative, surprisingly good-humored ensemble of local gang (or “palais,” in the local parlance) members, whose individual hard-luck narratives gradually build a consistent sociological mosaic. The most forthcoming of them, nicknamed Siniya Boy, is introduced riding pillion on a motorcycle through the town’s beige, bumpy streets, waving a handmade flag crudely adorned with swastikas and the name “Hitler” in scratchy capitals. It’s a jolting image, though not entirely what it seems. Siniya Boy’s palais has been named after the late dictator in somewhat misinformed fashion: “It’s the name of a guy in America, an invincible warrior,” he declares proudly. “Like him, we’re not scared.”

Small wonder that, when Macky asks him how her Zinder upbringing and his could have been so different, he’s the first to admit that education is the missing factor for him, alongside many denizens of Kara Kara. A palais, as he matter-of-factly describes it, is “a group of youngsters with nothing to do.” The film looks on impassively as the men of Hitler pass the days by lifting weights (or, in one amusingly macho challenge, motorbikes) in their clubhouse and shooting the breeze at the barbershop; they look upon acts of violence (either live, or captured and disseminated on mobile phones) with corresponding calm. Several subjects talk us through the brutal stories behind their many bodily scars, on which cinematographer Julien Bossé’s camera lingers with low-lit solemnity. Bawo, a former palais boss gone straight as a taxi driver, explains in grisly but nonchalant detail how his scalp was split open. He’s lived to tell the tale, even if he hasn’t quite escaped the world that mutilated him.

For many palais members, their principal livelihood entails trafficking gasoline from across the nearby Nigerian border: Ramsess, an intersex palais member, is among the most brazen of the smugglers, with a fearlessness seemingly cultivated from years of childhood bullying over their gender identity. (“Now it’s waking up with no money that bothers me,” they shrug.) The escalation and policing of this dangerous trade gives “Zinder” a core of narrative momentum and urgency, though Macky is chiefly interested in more everyday exchanges, in a culture where the prison fence is as standard a neighborhood meeting point as a local bar.

Indeed, as its overview of the community expands and diversifies, one wishes “Zinder” had slightly more time to burrow into its neglected corners. What begins as a male-led portrait is most chilling when Macky turns her attention to the women of Kara Kara, many of them forced into underage sex work, with their own horrific scars to show and tell — though their individual characters and stories don’t emerge quite as distinctly as those of the palais brethren. “Zinder” is a powerful, plainspoken document of social barriers and subcultures in a region that many foreign filmmakers would paint with one broad brush. Macky, on the other hand, leaves us with the impression that there’s more to uncover in her hometown yet.

‘Zinder’ Review: A Plain, Punchy Postcard From the Meanest Streets of Niger

Reviewed in Visions du Réel festival (online), London, Apr. 15, 2021. Running time: 83 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary – France-Niger-Germany) A Point du Jour, Les Films du Balibari, Tabous Production, Corso Film, Arte France presentation. (World sales: Andana Films, Lussas.) Producers: Clara Vuillermoz, Ousmane Samassekou, Erik Winker.
  • Crew: Director: Aicha Macky. Camera: Julien Bossé. Editor: Karen Benainous. Music: Dominique Peter.
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