Saloum is an absolute blast, packed with pleasant genre surprises and announcing a major new filmmaker in Jean Luc Herbulot.
Part of the joy of a film festival (even a virtual one) is discovering hitherto unknown talent that comes from seemingly out of nowhere with a fully-realized vision, a blast of excitement washing over you as you realize you’re watching a bold new filmmaker knock it right out of the park. With Saloum, writer/director Jean Luc Herbulot has crafted a lean, mean, thrilling genre hybrid that starts with a bang and never lets off the gas. Comparisons to John Carpenter are inevitable (and already rampant), but for once, the honorific actually makes sense. Saloum begins with a trio of mercenaries traversing a city block littered with corpses, the men stopping to finish off wounded soldiers and sticking their calling cards in their victim’s lapels. They are “Bangui’s Hyenas,” nigh-mythical warriors who are either folk heroes or vicious murderers, depending on who you ask. Large title cards splash across the screen introducing the men: there’s Chaka (Yann Gael), the leader; Rafa (Roger Sallah), his second in command, and Minuit (Mentor Ba), the oldest and wisest of the three. They make quite an impression, Minuit with his long white hair and Rafa with a closely cropped white beard, all three in dapper clothes beneath their weapons and gear.
Making off with a drug dealer’s stash of gold bars, they meet up with another dealer who’s on the run from the cartels, and who has offered them the use of his private plane in exchange for protection. But as soon as the men are up in the air, they begin losing fuel, and are forced to make an emergency landing in Senegal, in the Saloum region of the title. Trudging through inhospitable land, they find shelter at a commune of sorts buried deep from prying eyes. The proprietor, Omar (Bruno Henry), explains that here, everyone pays only what they can, and that guests divvy up chores to make up for the rest. It appears innocent enough, at least at first, but soon cracks begin to show. Unexpectedly, a police officer shows up unannounced, while the drug dealer that the Hyenas are supposed to be protecting begins acting strangely and threatening to blow their cover. There’s also a young, deaf-mute woman on site, Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), who knows exactly who these men are and what they are doing there. It seems that Chaka has a history with this place, and with Omar, that he hasn’t shared with his crew, and Awa is going to reveal his secret if he doesn’t let her leave with them and join the Hyenas. As the men attempt to keep up their ruse and somehow acquire fuel for their plane, Omar and Chaka find common ground in their violent pasts, a veritable horror show of historical atrocities on the African continent during the 20th century. To reveal more would be criminal, but suffice to say that things go from bad to worse at around the halfway mark, with strange supernatural occurrences bubbling up from beneath the ancient ground that these men do battle on.
Herbulot maintains a fantastic sense of suspense throughout his film’s brief 80-minute runtime, not an ounce of fat on its propulsive narrative. Character is revealed through actions, with exposition delivered in tense, suspenseful exchanges, and quick bursts of gunfire occurring in brief, unexpected flashes. Herbulot and cinematographer Gregory Corandi cram as much visual information as they can into each widescreen composition, cutting from scene to scene quickly but never frenetically. Indeed, Saloum is a master class in forward momentum, with characters in constant motion. But Herbulot also knows when to keep his characters motionless, allowing tension to mount until someone, or something, comes tearing out to attack. It’s never a particularly scary movie, but it’s decidedly suspenseful, with a Morricone-esque electronic soundtrack by Reksider that evokes both spaghetti westerns and Carpenter’s patented synth droning. Eventually turning into a siege film, Herbulot manages to create an emotional treatise on the bonds of brotherhood as well as the destructive nature of revenge. Personal struggles play out across a canvas of spiritual, mythopoetic landscapes as the ghosts of the past return to haunt our ostensible heroes. Saloum is an absolute blast, that most pleasant of surprises that genre fans can only find in programmes like Midnight Madness, and it announces a major new filmmaker — hopefully soon, people will be able to see this one with a crowd.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2021 — Dispatch 8.