HomeReviews‘Dahomey’ Review: Mati Diop’s Audacious Doc Offers A Provocative View Of Modern...

‘Dahomey’ Review: Mati Diop’s Audacious Doc Offers A Provocative View Of Modern Africa – Berlin Film Festival


Somebody — or something — is speaking from inside a timber crate. “It’s so dark in here… a night so deep and opaque” read the subtitles; the voice is speaking in Fon, the local language of the West African country that was once called Dahomey and is now Benin. As the slats are nailed down, the voice is increasingly muffled; we are outside, but we are inside too, watching the light disappear.

This is the transport that will take a carved statue of  Behanzin, king of Dahomey when the French army invaded in 1890, from the Musee Branly in Paris to Porto-Novo, capital of Benin. Around 7,000 works were looted from Benin in the years following the French conquest; in 2020, the French government ratified an earlier promise by President Macron to  return 26 of them. Behanzin’s image, with its metal belt and bracelets and one arm raised in a warrior’s challenge, was on its way home.

Dahomey is French-Senegalese film-maker Mati Diop’s response to this event. It is a heady mix of sometimes contradictory approaches: a documentary record showing the process of packing, sending and displaying artefacts; an architectural essay on the light and space Diop finds in galleries at both ends of the journey; a political polemic featuring students arguing with some fury about what, if anything, the restitution signifies and, riskiest of all, the fantasy of a statue come to stiff, woody life.

His texts, written by Makenzy Orcel, range from the vagueness of an oracle to the poignantly immediate. “I am afraid of not being recognised and of not recognising anyone,” he says at one point; it is the fear felt by all returning expatriates. It is also the fear of the time traveller. Through Diop’s eyes, we see that the gleaming white corridors of the Musee Branly are almost exactly mirrored by those of the presidential palace’s gallery in Porto-Novo: angular, shining and unnervingly empty power-spaces, waiting to be filled with cultural capital. This is nothing like the country the real Behanzin would remember.

I admit it: the idea that our companion on this journey would be a talking statue first struck me as silly, ludicrously reminiscent of a voodoo doll come to life in a horror film — pretty much the last sort of association you would want in a film about West African culture. As the film unfolds, however, that voice of the past resonates with the seriousness of Diop’s project, pressing that past into the present like a mould being pressed into clay.

I find myself making other associations, reflecting on the ways these works were imprinted in turn on French culture — in the faces of Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon, in the mask compared to Jeanne Moreau’s face in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim – as whispers of the exotic. The monstrosity of this cultural theft is brought home when we see schoolchildren in Benin gazing in wonder at the 26 works, now on display in their homeland: their stolen heritage.

Diop’s master stroke – in a short film full of master strokes -– is to stage what was clearly a long debate between students at the University of Abomey-Calavi about the meaning and importance of the return of these 26 artworks. It’s a “savage insult”, says one firebrand, to return so little of what was taken. A young woman says this talk of insults makes her sick; he is treating the event as an opportunity to “run his mouth” instead of rejoicing in what has been returned and thinking about how to get back the rest. A young woman is angry that she can only express herself in French, language of the colonists. Remember what defined you as clever at school, replies a young man: being able to quote Aristotle! More fundamental issues rumble beneath the rhetoric: how many people in Benin, asks a speaker, can count on three meals a day?

Orcel’s musings as Behanzin become more allusive as Diop traces a path around Cotonou, suggesting that the conquered king’s spirit is now free to wander. “I never left. I am here,” he says gruffly as the camera passes over billboards set above highways. “I am the face of metamorphosis. I see myself so clearly through you … within me resonates infinity.” It is a grand claim, the sort of thing a 19th-century potentate at the head of a slave kingdom might conceivably say, claiming continuity even while Benin’s vibrant youth gives voice to how much has changed and will change again. Open-ended, fecund with imagination and ideas, never hectoring or lecturing, not so much posing questions as asking what questions might be posed: Mati Diop’s film is a marvelous provocation.

Title: Dahomey
Festival: Berlin (Competition)
Sales agent: Les Films du Losange
Director/screenwriter: Mati Diop
Running time: 1 hr 8 min

Content Source: deadline.com


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