By Fatima Husain
Set in Côte d’Ivoire’s largest prison La MACA, Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings masterfully unveils the tale of a young prisoner (Koné Bakary), forced into recounting a night long story, in the hopes of survival.
The dangerously unruly prison is run by the once mighty, now ailing ‘Blackbeard’ Dangoro (Steve Tientcheu), who is in charge. Ironically, Blackbeard himself runs on a portable oxygen cylinder and fears the fate of MACA post his death. A handful of conspirators along with the opportunist Lass, plan to turn the further enslaved and submissive prisoners into “customers”.
Meanwhile, the police chief and his counterparts at the correctional facility serve as mere spectators, waiting for chaos to descend upon the “jungle”. Frantic for peace to flourish.
As the chief scornfully points out: “The MACA is the only prison in the world run by an inmate.”
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The story, inspired by Sherezade of The Thousand and One Nights, begins with the newcomer’s entrance into the chaotic facility. Blackbeard, in a final attempt to secure his withering authority, spots and designates him as “Roman” - the Story Teller on the night of the red moon.
As the complex day slips into the much-anticipated night, a muddled Roman weaves a fetching tale about Zama King, a notorious gang leader.
Encircled by the exuberant inmates and reading into their adventurous minds, Roman tactfully sprinkles magic, religion and curiosity into the tale. He sketches the character from its rise in ancient times to the fall of Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo.
Hounded by ruthless, bloodthirsty inmates, the race is on for Roman - akin to Sherezade - to stay alive through the artof convincing storytelling.
The unsteady camerawork, following shots and clever editing fit with the unprecedented narrative of the prison situation. With parallel plots running and inmates scheming and delivering theatrics to complement Roman’s tale, the visually stunning sequences only enhance the mysterious prison drama.
The notably brilliant interplay of light and shadows are a myriad of desperate hope and darkness - as conspiracies breed within the prison compounds, crawling with silence.
Besides the awe inspiring frames, the night of the storyteller, punctuated with powerful silences and accented with earthly folk songs and music truly incarnates the art of storytelling for survival.
As the red moon sets and daylight transcends over a still compound, much has changed over the course of the long, eventful night.
*Editor’s Note: Ivorian director Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings screened in the Contemporary World Cinemaprogramme at the 45th Toronto International Film Festival (2020). Lacôte won the Amplify Voices Award at the festival.