Philippe Lacôte • Director of Night of the Kings
"What interests me is how the power of words manages to make violence step back"
- VENICE 2020: The French-Ivorian filmmaker Philippe Lacôte talks to us about his fascinating feature Night of the Kings, a multi-dimensional prison film revealed in the Orizzonti section
Night of the Kings [+see also:
interview: Philippe Lacôte
film profile] is the second feature film from Philippe Lacôte, discovered in Cannes in 2014 (in the Un Certain Regard section) with Run [+see also:
film profile]. After its world premiere in the Orizzonti section of the 77th Venice Film Festival, the film will be presented in Toronto in the Contemporary World Cinema strand.
Cineuropa: Why did you put the MACA prison at the centre of Night of the Kings?
Philippe Lacôte: The MACA is the only prison in Abidjan and one of the most overpopulated prisons in West Africa. I discovered it as a kid. I would go there regularly because my mother was a political opponent and was incarcerated there for years by the Houphouët-Boigny regime. I would go see here once a week by taking a collective taxi that ran along the forest. There are no individual parlors, so visitors are amongst the prisoners who freely walk around a big room. This allowed me to observe this prison, the behaviours, to listen to the language of the prison, to watch certain details. It’s this atmosphere, these images, that I wanted to prolong in Night of the Kings.
The film blends realism and the supernatural, it approaches the documentary and dives into the imaginary. Why this mix?
What interests me in this film and in general is to tell a story from a culture, from an African imaginary. In Ivorian culture and more generally in that of West Africa, the borders between realism, magic, and fantasy are very porous, very permeable. The story of Roman about Zama is based on real facts, refers to archives, but it is also told like a legend. It’s true that I come from the documentary field and that this very real material precisely allowed me to create an entire fantasy space, with the red moon, the beliefs of the characters with flashbacks, etc. But this isn’t cartesian logic. The time dimensions are present simultaneously: we may be in the legendary, in the political archive, in the historical account, in the myth. These are levels of storytelling that are not contradictory, just like the griots and the African oral tradition. The griot is at once a storyteller, an historian, a praise singer, etc. These are different levels that I try to manipulate to tell the most homogeneous story possible. It’s a genre film and I did rely on the codes of the prison movie genre, but what interested me wasn’t necessarily to portray the living conditions of prisoners, or the prison seen from the administrative apparatus, but rather to get close to the beliefs. This is the reason why Roman’s night can take place, this cosmogony of the prisoners.
Roman’s night, is it a real ritual or an invention for your film?
The notion of Roman, that is to say, of choosing a prisoner and forcing him to tell stories every night, is a practice that does exist in the MACA. But it isn’t as extreme as it is in my film. I added the dramatic dimension of death. It was a childhood friend of mine who was coming out of the MACA who told me this story. It therefore awoke in me my childhood memories of that prison and that was the trigger of the script and of the character of Roman.
What about the almost Shakespearean dimension of the story, the title of your film borrowing as it does that of a play by the English playwright?
Night of the Kings is a title that imposed itself progressively. The reference to Shakespeare comes from the fact that I wanted to paint a world of intrigue and power struggles inside a jail. There is also the realm of superstition, of naive beliefs, that is also present with the ritual, which is connected to the appearance of the red moon.
What degree of violence did you want to include?
The violence in Night of the Kings is more mental than it is real. But it does exist. It hovers like a Damocles sword over Roman’s head, who must tell stories if he wants to survive. The whole prison and the reign of Barbe Noire rely on games of violence that he puts at the prisoners’ disposition so that they won’t rebel against his diktat. But what interests me is how the power of words manages to make violence step back.
(Translated from French by Manuela Lazic)
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