Night of the Kings, Philippe Lacôte's Ivorian Oscars entry, is a peek into the world's only prison run by an inmate

Night of the Kings is a film made of fleeting moments of beauty packed within a world defined by violence and surrounded by death.

Bedatri D Choudhury April 07, 2021 10:39:18 IST
Night of the Kings, Philippe Lacôte's Ivorian Oscars entry, is a peek into the world's only prison run by an inmate

Still from Night of the Kings. YouTube

Language: French and Dyula

La MACA is a prison that lies right outside the borders of Ivory Coast’s capital city, Abidjan. And as they say in Philippe Lacôte’s Oscar-nominated film Night of the Kings, it is the only prison in the world run by an inmate.

Within the liminal, nether underbelly of justice and civilisation (as we define it) that is the prison, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) is the Dangôro, the king and the god of La MACA who, as we know early in the film, is sick and growing increasingly incapable of quelling rising dissent among warring camps in the prison. The law of the lawless La MACA dictates that a sick Dangôro is unfit to rule his subjects, and must, therefore, kill himself.

One of his last duties is to choose a Roman, a Scheherazade-like storyteller who, on the fateful night of the red moon, has to keep telling a story all night and into the morning, in order to keep himself and the tradition of La MACA alive. When a young man in a yellow shirt (Bakary Koné) enters the prison, Blackbeard anoints him the Roman, immediately pushing him to a position of extreme power and fear. He is destined to be the sacrificial lamb whose blood sanctifies Blackbeard’s passing but, like every other man in La MACA, he must do everything it takes to survive. 

Night of the Kings is a film made of fleeting moments of beauty packed within a world defined by violence and surrounded by death.

When Roman begins to tell his story in the carnivalesque night of the red moon, the inmates shapeshift to become a Shakespearean chorus with its members singing, dancing, and miming the events of Roman’s never-ending story about the criminal, Zama King. The story of Zama King, Roman’s former boss who has recently been killed, is not very different from the story of the others who live in La MACA and there is only so much to it that can hold the inmates’ attention through the night. In order to save his own life, Roman, instinctively, begins to invent. He claims to have been brought up by an aunt who is a griot—a class of travelling storytellers and oral historians in West Africa practising a tradition he falls back upon to survive. As his story stretches across centuries — narrating wars, violence, deceit, and love — we see the timid yellow-shirted man transform into a confident storyteller, a masterful holder of secrets whose eyes, by the light of kerosene lamps, glisten as his story advances from one century to the other, from one modernity to the next, and from one act of violence to the many that follow.

Ivory Coast, much like La MACA with its warring inmates, is a nation scarred by two civil wars — first in 2002 when a civil war in the country’s north and the west divided into irreconcilable parts, and then in 2010, when the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo refused to recognise the presidential victory of the northern leader Alassane Ouattara. The ensuing violence resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, and forced at least a million people to flee Abidjan. Zama King, following the arrest of Gbagbo, became the favourite of the northern rebel leaders — “the handyman for the new leaders of the country,” Roman calls him—and was one of the many young men who found immense politically-backed legitimacy to kill and plunder with abandon. La MACA is the forest-like underworld the nation banishes its men to, after it has exhausted its extraction of their youth and power. 

Lacôte’s mother was incarcerated at La MACA for protesting against the despotic Ivory Coast president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. It was his formerly incarcerated friend who told him about the practice of storytelling among the men of La MACA. From close quarters, Lacôte is aware of the insidious ways power operates within the prison and the nation at large. Ivory Coast was declared independent of France’s rule only as recently as 1960 but the horrors of the Françafrique system continue to haunt every social and political sphere of the country. As the French “peacekeeping” army holds its fort over Ivory Coast, instances of fatal violence between Ivorians and the French keep making news and claiming lives.

La MACA with Blackbeard’s army and the rebellious camp under Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté) may seem to be an autonomous space of unbridled power which allows inmates a chance to play kings but, as the ending of the film reminds us, it is still a prison which, by definition, exists under a tight web of surveillance and every inch of its apparently carnivalesque space is nothing but a well thought-out allowance from a higher, invisible, more dangerous seat of power which pretends to be benevolent but actually wants to kill. “If they want to kill each other, we are fine by that,” a female prison guard, one of the very few female characters in the film, says during the riotous celebration of the night of the red moon. A carnival is a carnival as long as it stays within the limits of the tolerance of the higher powers. Beyond these limits, they become riots and, as any police force in the world will tell us, riots need to be quelled. 

Ultimately, all of Blackbeard’s and Lass’ power tussles grow silent under gunshots rending carelessly through the prison walls. Who lives and who dies is an arbitrary decision made by the hand that holds the gun, and the only thing survivors can do, Lacôte seems to suggest, is live to tell the tale. And tell the tale to live. 

Night of the Kings was the Ivorian official entry for the Best International Feature category at Academy Awards 2021. It is currently screening in the Virtual Viewing Room of the Dharamshala International Film Festival.

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