Review: Soleils (Delahaye & Kouyaté, 2014) – MVFF 2014

Still from the movie Soleils

Soleils, the other movie I saw at the Mill Valley Film Festival this past Saturday, is a French-language joint collaboration between French director Olivier Delahaye and Burkina Fasan director Dani Kouyaté. Though the African scenes were filmed almost exclusively in Burkina Faso (due to budgetary constraints, according to Delahaye), the film actually has a pan-African and, one might even say, pan-historic vision, spanning as it does nearly a millennium of African history. If 10,000 KM focuses on the microcosm of one relationship between two individuals, Soleils has a much broader scope, attempting to unify the philosophy and history of an entire continent (particularly northern and southern Africa) under the framework of the Mali Empire’s Manden Charter, created in the thirteenth century by Sundiata Keita, the empire’s founder.

In a style reminiscent of Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder’s novel Sophie’s World, the griot poet Sotigui (Binda Ngazolo) leads young Dokamisa (Nina Melo), descendant of Sundiata and representative of Africa’s future, on a wandering journey through time and space, visiting various African and European “suns” of thought (hence the film’s title) along the way. The film seeks to defy the traditional stereotypes of these two continents–enlightened Europe versus benighted Africa–by gently illustrating the prejudices in European thinking (towards Africa) and highlighting great but often obscure African leaders, showing how the philosophies of the latter have their roots in the Manden Charter principles.

The film is guided more by this theme than by a traditional narrative structure as Dokamisa’s identity (and clothing) shift and evolve backwards and forwards through the centuries. If Sotigui and Dokamisa walk out of the thirteenth century palace of Sundiata and into an old-fashioned Citroën–well, it’s all par for the course. As viewers, we relax our rigid Western need for cause and effect and meander through the fantastical, magical, mystical dreamscape of the film. That said, one must relax quite a bit not to stumble a little over the haphazard construction of scenes. Rather than scenes then, we should focus on symbols. What does Dokamisa’s costuming signify? What about her dreams? What are we to take away from Sotigui’s stories? The movie is sly and mysterious, refusing neat answers, much like Sotigui himself.

The aim of Soleils, then, is ultimately pedagogical. An audience member declared the film should be shown in every classroom in the state. Delahaye did not try to hide his desire for his project to offer an alternative view of Africa to the violent, corrupt, dangerous, poor, and disease-riddled image so often put forward in modern media. In that sense, it is certainly an uplifting film–but it’s not a complicated one, and I wonder if representations of Africa have to be so black and white. As if the only reaction to the rampant negativity is unmitigated positivity. Certainly it makes us feel good to watch, and it is its own sort of truth, but could we not be better served (intellectually and emotionally) by something more nuanced and complex? Perhaps the answer to that question is that there is room enough for all types of films, and Soleils certainly deserves its spot in cinema’s vast stratosphere.