Ivory Coast hasn’t had much of a film industry over the past nearly 20 years of civil unrest, political upheaval, and outright war; I’m pretty sure I’d not previously seen an Ivorian film at all. But it is getting a bit of resurgence thanks to a single movie, Run, the first narrative feature from Ivorian filmmaker Philippe Lacôte, which debuted at Cannes last year in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section and was recently named as the nation’s submission for next year’s Best Foreign Language Oscars category; this is only the second time Ivory Coast has made such a submission, and the last one was 40 years ago.
I saw Run at Film Africa — it was the opening-night film of the festival, which runs through this coming weekend in London — and while it may not be perfect, it does have an enchanting lyricism that becomes a sort of African magic realism. Prophecy and politics become intertwined in a realm where strange and beautiful imagery later takes on dark new meaning, as with the startling and lovely vision of all the stars falling from a night sky, which at first seems wondrous, until we come to realize that it is full of an ominous similarity to the grim sight of a plague of locusts descending on a peaceful savannah.
All the turmoil of Ivory Coast in the 21st century — this is very loosely inspired by recent real events — is balled up in a young man called Run (Abdoul Karim Konaté). The film’s dialogue is mostly in French, the official Ivorian language, but his name takes on the English meaning of the word: he has been running his whole life, mostly from events that took bad turns and spiraled out of his control. The film opens with Run assassinating the country’s prime minister while, mysteriously, dressed as a sort of hobo and apparently in a sort of trance: this act of violence is not one of hotblooded rage, at least. And then, as Run runs away from his crime, Lacôte, screenwriter as well as director, flashes back to the formative eras of Run’s life to show us what led him to this moment.
I’m sure there is much more cultural and political resonance for Ivorians, but even I could see how the crushing of Run’s first dream (he is played as a teen by Abdoul Bah), of becoming apprentice to Tourou (Rasmane Ouedraogo) the rainmaker, a sort of shaman-philosopher, is haunted by bloodshed and power plays not so different from what Run will face later, when he falls in with an activist group called the Young Patriots, ruled by L’Amiral (Alexandre Desane), whose motives aren’t quite what they appear at first. Violence and male posturing rules all. In between, however, comes Run’s relationship with “Greedy” Gladys (Reine Sali Coulibaly), a “professional eater,” a sort of sideshow act, except she’s the main attraction, as they travel from town to town and amuse crowds of onlookers with her feats of consumption. It’s a sweet interlude in Run’s life, punctuated by one of the few acts of selfless loyalty that he is ever the recipient of, until he meets Assa (Isaach De Bankolé: The Last Witch Hunter, Calvary), who becomes instrumental in setting him on his path to assassination… which is also not what it seems at first.
It’s always exciting to discover a film from a place and a people I know almost nothing about, not even second- or third-hand through their cinema. Run is a beautiful example of that. This is a bold and compelling film that offers a peek inside the national psyche of a country I venture to guess that most of us are unfamiliar with. It deserves to get some sort of wider availability in the West, not just as an ambassador of its nation but as reminder — which shouldn’t be needed but always is — of the universality of human experience, even when many of the cultural details vary. We are all jerked around by things outside our control even as we try to wrest some authority back for ourselves. The push and pull of that is how change for the better comes. Even if it doesn’t look like anything positive can come of it at all.
viewed during 2015 Film Africa: The Royal African Society’s Annual Film Festival