Friday, April 19, 2024

“DAHOMEY”

THE STORY – November 26th, 2021, royal treasures of the Kingdom of Dahomey are about to leave Paris to return to their country of origin, the present-day Republic of Benin. Along with thousands of others, these artifacts were plundered by French colonial troops in 1892. But what attitude should be adopted to these ancestors’ homecoming in a country that had to forge ahead in their absence? The debate rages among students at the University of Abomey-Calavi.

THE CAST – Makenzy Orcel

THE TEAM – Mati Diop (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 67 Minutes


Following her breathtaking narrative feature debut, “Atlantics,” Mati Diop’s latest “Dahomey” is a technical filmmaking and perspective feat of documentary storytelling. Following the story of plundered artifacts as they are returned to Benin from France, over 130 years after they were stolen from the Kingdom of Dahomey, the documentary encompasses the power of observation with a remarkably unconventional point of view. Winner of the 2024 Berlinale Film Festival Golden Bear award for best overall film, it’s one of the can’t-miss works of art of the year.

The story begins in Paris, where, until 2021, these particular artifacts were displayed in the Musée du Quai Brandy – Jacques Chirac, a museum specifically designed to exhibit mostly artifacts from conquered territories, including the African colonies. The camera lingers over an evening in Paris, showing people enjoying meals, light-up Eiffel tour souvenirs for sale, and the rushing water of the Seine. As night descends, we enter the museum, where twenty-six artifacts are being prepared for a long journey.

Diop boldly decides to place the viewer in the perspective of one of the returning artifacts, a statue of King Ghezo of Dahomey. She quite literally gives King Ghezo a voice to narrate the documentary (performed by Haitian writer Makenzy Orcel, who also wrote his own lines), which is deep and frighteningly powerful. The statue itself commands respect, tall and staring directly ahead with one arm lifted in the air; it stands proud and unafraid. The voice of “King Ghezo” reveals that in France, he was stripped of his name and identity, titled simply “Number 26,” referring to the number of treasures being returned to Benin. The voice describes the 130 years of captivity in the “Kingdom of darkness” as he is sealed inside a wooden box (and us with him), ready to be transported back home. The artifact contemplates his departure from Paris that he has waited to be permitted to leave, and questions what awaits him back home in a place he has dreamed of since he was first stolen. By making one of the artifacts the protagonist of the story, Diop is able to become a curious bystander as the voices of the silenced lead the film.

Despite its unorthodox perspective, the documentary has a reasonably linear structure, following the artifacts as they are returned and prepared for display in Benin. The film lingers on the care that is taken to catalog each item’s condition upon their arrival in Benin, introducing the audience to the array of other artifacts, which includes statues of King Glélé, who is depicted as half-man half-lion, and King Béhanzin, displayed as half-man half-shark, as well as an intricate throne of Yoruba origin. This section of the film is purely immersive, taking in the faces and clothes of the people working on the exhibition, just as King Ghezo reflects upon the drastic changes that have occurred in his absence. This section of the documentary is almost dream-like in its presentation and quality, with harps and a choral score carrying the film forward in its story.

“Dahomey’s” tension arises when a group of students at the University of Abomey-Calavi begins a spirited debate that connects the return of the artifacts to Benin’s changing cultural and financial landscape. They discuss the infrastructure required to not only display and maintain the exhibit but also to enable people to access the art. It is noted that many people cannot afford three meals a day, but rather than focus on that, the government would rather entertain an ego-driven gesture from Emmanuel Macron to rehabilitate France’s image as it loses power in Africa. Here, the film links the artifacts to its underlying question – do they belong in an exhibit where only the rich can enjoy them? Should they be exhibited at all? This is a European export, and originally, the artifacts were created for utility, such as worship and artistry, not for exhibition and profit. The ideas discussed are captivating, and the passion of the young students reveals the vigor of a new generation. While the debate ensues, Diop shows people around Benin listening intently to the broadcasted debate. This section of the documentary is bursting with youthful exuberance, contrasting nicely with the sage quietness of the voice of the artifacts. The debate takes up a large portion of the 67-minute film, and its energy propels the story forward with high intensity. The conversation switches passionately between French and the native language, Fon, acting as an appropriate metaphor for the reclamation of one’s own culture. The debate is interspersed with shots of each artifact and visitors coming to observe them in their new exhibition, making for a fascinating reflection of an earlier section of the film, where the artifacts were displayed in France. Here, they are in their new home, trying to make sense of the familiar and unfamiliar.

As King Ghezo reflects on 130 years of change in Benin, Diop is simultaneously exploring the changing landscape of African politics and the voices of a new generation wrapped up in a tight runtime. That she manages to pull it off is nothing short of miraculous. “Dahomey” strikes the perfect balance between reflecting on the past and embracing the future with dream-like direction and a perspective like no other.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Mati Diop's direction is excellent and takes a bold approach to documentary storytelling unlike anything you've seen before. The construction is experimental and intentional, but with a 67-minute runtime, no moment is wasted.

THE BAD - None

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Documentary Feature

THE FINAL SCORE - 10/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Mati Diop's direction is excellent and takes a bold approach to documentary storytelling unlike anything you've seen before. The construction is experimental and intentional, but with a 67-minute runtime, no moment is wasted.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-documentary-feature/">Best Documentary Feature</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>10/10<br><br>"DAHOMEY"