Whatever political turmoil the west has experienced recently is a drop in the bucket compared to the tidal waves crashing against the shores of many African nations. Guinea-Bissau, on the West Coast of Africa, has had three coups, a civil war, and a presidential assassination in the past 20 years, and it’s in that kind of frenetic, violent confusion that the new film Saloum begins. Jean Luc Herbulot’s immensely entertaining, wildly energetic, and generally unclassifiable film begins here in 2003, in the aftermath of a coup, where three notorious men known as Bangui’s Hyenas extract a prisoner and a briefcase full of gold.
The prisoner is a Mexican drug lord named Felix who they are tasked with delivering to Dakar for a million dollars. The opening extraction sequence with these mercenaries is merciless and marvelous, an exposition-heavy and action-packed beginning that is wholly indicative of the film itself — mysterious, unpredictable, fun, and totally wired.
The Hyenas ultimately have to land in the titular region of Saloum after they detect problems with their plane, bringing it down in the swampy tidelands of the vast Senegalese expanse. They find and take shelter there, hoping to gather fuel for their plane and resin to patch its hole, but things don’t go according to plan when supernatural elements rear their head.
Saloum is a Truly Cool Crime Drama With Horror Elements
The three main characters, the Hyenas, are a delightful gang of quasi-criminals, apparently the subject of folklore far and wide for their Robin Hood-style exploits and seemingly unstoppable heroics. Chaka (Yann Gael) is the brains of the group, a glasses-wearing, smooth-talking, perpetually gloved genius who always seems to have ulterior motives. Rafa (Roger Sallah) is the ostensible brawn, a slightly mohawked tough guy with an endlessly lit cigarette between the crack of his toothy grin. Minuit (Mentor Ba) Senegal is a healer of sorts, the black magic member of the gang who uses powders and dusts to fight but is also deeply attuned to the spiritual world. These three men genuinely love each other and are committed to their little group, and their longevity shows.
They’re great characters, though they arguably hog the spotlight from everyone else; nobody in Saloum is as interesting, cool, or developed as these three, which is sometimes a problem. The Hyenas stay at a communal resort area where Chaka knows the owner, Oscar, in a desolate part of Senegal.
Shacks are spread out around a central compound near the water and mangroves, and it’s a short drive away from the main village. The Hyenas have to blend in, intermingling with other guests staying at the compound in exchange for work (like a kibbutz). The three men perform manual labor in exchange for their stay, hoping to get fuel and resin within a few days in order to get back in the skies. Problems arise when one of the guests recognizes them, though she is deaf and mute, and wants to join their group and have a cut of their profits. There also seems to be something wrong with the main village, where people are missing and others have mutilated or deformed body parts.
Meanwhile, bizarre occurrences and a lurking sense of dread plagues the area, which is when Saloum begins to indicate that it’s not just a crime drama with a charming sense of humor, but also a folk horror movie, one exploring the culturally specific supernatural and spiritual elements of this specific part of Africa; saying anything else would be unfortunate. The fact that Shudder is distributing it is a real testament to that streaming platform’s commitment to interesting, exciting new films, even if they aren’t traditional ‘horror’ movies.
No Spoilers, Just Watch Saloum
There are arguably too many little but fun moments in Saloum to detail without spoiling the true joy of going into the film blind. Whether it’s small character revelations, details about spiritual elements, or fundamental plot elements, it’s absolutely best to go into the film without much knowledge beyond the fact that it’s highly, highly recommended (sitting at a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes with nearly 40 reviews). From the first few minutes of Saloum, you’ll know if you want to keep watching; with so much vibrancy, originality, and pure fun, it’s difficult to understand who wouldn’t.
Saloum has the kind of energy, explorative passion, and unbridled enthusiasm of many ‘new wave’ films. Breathless in the French New Wave or Sex, Lies, and Videotape in the burgeoning American indie movie scene of the ’80s and ’90s each have a similar vibrancy and joy to simply exist. Saloum shares this self-defining passion as a part of a new wave of popular African cinema, with Jean Luc Herbulot leading the proverbial way (after making the excellent Dealer and the first real African series for Netflix, Sakho & Mangane).
It’s an extremely engaging movie as a result, never satisfied to simply be one thing for too long. For a while, it’s a crime drama with a sense of humor, extremely reminiscent of Three Kings. Then it’s a claustrophobic bundle of tension, like Rope, before becoming a revenge film like Django Unchained and evolving into a folkloric horror film. Saloum is a movie that could be Attack the Block one instant and Pulp Fiction the next, somehow a reflection of all these things and none of them at the same time. This is to say that it’s wholly unique, and like anything this distinct, it needs to be mapped out with references to be communicable.
Saloum is a Subtitled Movie For Anyone Who Dislikes Subtitles
Audiences could extract a whole variety of meanings from Saloum. It’s extremely perceptive about the destructive, murky nature of revenge, and it’s a sweet meditation on friendship and camaraderie. It could also be seen as a layered political allegory, as the Hyenas move from a coup in one of the more turbulent African areas in Guinea-Bissau to the tranquil resort by the water in Senegal, one of the few African nations with a stable, generally democratic political system. However, in Saloum, it’s clear that an almost demonic, Faustian agreement has been made to ensure the peaceful stability of the area. Perhaps this spiritual component is allegorical, a reference to western influence and intervention.
It honestly doesn’t matter, though. Saloum is so fun, fast-paced, and unexpected, that any kind of meaning is just the cherry on top. Herbulot’s film is just so enjoyable on pretty much every level. The main three characters are almost instantly iconic, the action sequences and special effects are subtle but wonderful, and the suspense is taut but with endearingly humorous levity.
Yes, it’s mostly in French (and sign language), so there are subtitles, which may scare off more reticent or illiterate viewers, but this is the kind of film which bridges the divide between the subtitle crowd and those who can’t stand reading the screen. Saloum is a gateway film, the kind of international crowd-pleaser which can jump from nation to nation just by virtue of being so downright entertaining. Anyone with an iota of interest should dive deep into the rivers of revenge in this film — the waters won’t disappoint.
From Lacmé, Rumble Fish Productions, and Tableland Pictures, Saloum is streaming on Shudder beginning Sep. 8th.