Genre cinema rarely feels as multifaceted as Congolese director Jean Luc Herbulot’s gonzo thriller Saloum, which combines its disparate influences with such abandon that you can’t help but go along for the ride. Propulsively lurching with infectious glee from crime drama to modern-day Western to horror suffused with supernatural elements, this may turn out to be the rare African film that enters the international mainstream, or, at the very least, achieves cult movie status. Appropriately showcased in the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto Film Festival, the feature marks its director-screenwriter and his creative partner, producer Pamela Diop, as talents to watch.
The story begins in 2003 during the Guinea-Bissau coup, when a legendary trio of mercenaries known as the Bangui Hyenas (oh, what a title that would have been!) extract a Mexican drug lord (Renaud Farah) and his gold stash. They intend to bring him to the city of Dakar in Senegal, but when their plane is forced down they find themselves in the remote Saloum Delta region. After burying the gold stash, they make their way to a vacation retreat run by the seemingly genial Omar (Bruno Henry), who welcomes them on the condition that they agree to do daily chores.
The Bottom Line
Destined for cult status.
The Hyenas — composed of group leader Chaka (Yann Gael), macho Rafa (Roger Sallah) and the older, wiser Minuit (Mentor Ba) — clash over their hideout. Rafa and Minuit want to leave as soon as possible, but Chaka, whose demeanor toward Omar is chilly at best, insists that they stay for a while. As we eventually learn, he has a past with Omar with which he wants to come to terms. Their stay is complicated by the presence of another guest, Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), and by the unexpected arrival of a police chief (Ndiaga Mbow) who could turn out to be a threat. Awa, who cannot hear or speak, is aware of the men’s identity and blackmails them to take her with them when they leave.
To reveal more would be to ruin the film’s many surprises, which, befitting the brief 80-minute running time, come at a furious pace (at times you wish for a more coherent narrative, but you can’t have everything). Suffice it to say that the story hinges on revenge, and that it incorporates African myths and folklore to a degree that may at times prove baffling to non-homegrown audiences. It’s all utterly preposterous, but the writer-director (working from a story devised with Diop) infuses it with so much wit, of both the visual and the verbal variety, that it hardly matters. The charged interactions between the feisty Awa and the Hyenas, conducted in sign language, are a particular highlight. “Do we look like UNICEF?” Minuit asks her when she gets too inquisitive.
Herbulot displays a talent for action sequences that makes the film compulsively watchable. The kinetic camerawork and fast-paced editing, as well as the terrific, multifaceted musical score by Reksider, create sustained tension that is marred only by the overuse of intentionally blurry images. When the story reaches the horror elements that make up most of the final act, monstrous creatures are rendered in a primitive but effectively scary manner. The film proves equally tense in the quieter moments, thanks to the sharply written dialogue and the superb performances from the ensemble, who bring unexpected depth to their roles. That’s especially true of Juhen, who nearly steals the film with her intense nonverbal turn.