Last December, filmmaker Philippe Lacôte experienced a brutal case of life imitating art; just as he was finishing work on a movie about a young gang leader, he was assaulted by a youth gang armed with a machete.
Alone and late at night on the streets of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the French-Ivorian writer-director sustained injuries to his head, hand and leg. “It was a serious attack,” Lacôte tells CNN, mentioning it not to sensationalize the incident but to point out the “strange coincidence.” “It wasn’t related (to the film). It was not personal,” he explains, instead a case of “fiction becoming reality in my life.”
Lacôte’s films — narrative and documentary — have engaged with the violence of the Ivorian civil wars of 2002-2007 and 2010-2011, and the legacy of violence once the wars stopped. For his second feature,”Night of the Kings,” Lacôte turns his lens on young gang members known as “microbes,” who wrought violence on Abidjan in the aftermath of the second war.
The film follows Roman (newcomer Koné Bakary), a microbe thrust into the bowels of Abidjan’s infamous La MACA prison, who must tell inmates stories on his first night or meet death at the hands of fading gang leader Blackbeard (Steven Tientcheu, “Les Misérables”). Roman chooses to tell the story of the Zama King, a young outlaw, taking his audience on a journey through Ivory Coast in space and time. All the while, a power struggle between prison gangs plays out off stage.
Koné Bakary as Roman, the young inmate forced to tell stories at La MACA prison. Credit: courtesy Memento Films International
Lacôte’s films have tightly orbited the director (“I don’t make a lot of films … I can only shoot what is essential to me”) and so too here; he has his own history with La MACA and now, due to a twist of fate, microbes have left their mark on him.
Three operations and the best part of a year after the attack, Lacôte is healed. With a slightly nervous laugh, he says he’s safe and happy to be able to share the film. Debuting across Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals — and penciled in for Busan, the director says — it’s another milestone in the revival of Ivory Coast’s film industry and further evidence of Lacôte’s talents.
CNN spoke with the director ahead of the film’s world premiere on September 7. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CNN: The prison environment in your film is incredibly well realized. Can you tell me how you arrived at it?
Lacôte: La MACA (Maison d’Arrêt et de Correction d’Abidjan) is the main prison of Abidjan and they built it inside a small forest, Banco National Park. When I was a child, my mother was in this prison for political reasons and I traveled one day each week, alone in a collective taxi or a bus to the prison. La MACA is not a private place; it’s a big room and prisoners can go free around visitors. I was a child, eight or nine, and I tried to observe how prisoners speak to each other and how they speak with guards. It was like a whole kingdom for me with kings, with princes, with valets.
This ritual of Roman telling stories is a real practice in La MACA, but they don’t kill the narrator — I have a good friend who was in La MACA and he told me. It was an amazing place for me to start.
Steve Tientcheu (“Les Misérables”) as Blackbeard, leader of LA MACA, who uses Roman as a pawn in an internal power struggle. Credit: courtesy Memento Films International
My prison, the prison of “Night of the Kings,” is very realistic, but inside it’s not like La MACA. Twenty-five percent of our actors in this prison were old prisoners in real life. It was important for us to also have the language, the slang, of young people, because 80% of people in La MACA are less than 30 years old. Reality comes from how the prisoners speak, how they walk; it’s the atmosphere of the prison that was most important for me. If you have this, you have the truth of the place.
If your La MACA is like a self-contained society, is the story allegorical?
The title “Night of the Kings” in French (“La Nuit des Rois”) is the name of one of Shakespeare’s plays (“Twelfth Night”), so for French speakers they know it’s a fight over power. When you see this prison, how people want to take power, it’s difficult not to think about Ivory Coast, about our leaders, about the fight we are in for 20 years now. But it’s not a direct metaphor. I wanted with this film to go inside the mind of prisoners; to show prison like the world, like society, with its codes and laws.
Roman’s story straddles both modern legend and ancient myth. What was behind your decision to push those spaces together?
It’s important today to make films in Africa which include our vision of the world. We need to put our perception and our culture into our films, and the culture of Ivory Coast is not too logical, like a European culture. The border is very fine between real things and magical things, invisible worlds and physical worlds, dead people and alive people. All of these borders are continuously moving. It was important for me to move between modern world, ancient world, mythic world, mystic world — it’s our way to see life.
Roman’s account of the Zama King’s journey through Ivory Coast spins a tale of myth and magic. Credit: courtesy Memento Films International
Roman is not the only inmate involved in storytelling. Can you tell me a little about the role of song and dance sequences in the film?
What is a prison today? It’s one thousand people who spend their days creating nothing. (But when Roman begins to speak) it’s like Greek theater; you have singers and dancers who come to make a voyage into this story. I brought people from martial arts backgrounds, dancers and singers and put this culture into the film. It was important that the prison was not simply a place to start the story and then to have flashbacks; I wanted the story turning inside prisoners and transforming them.
Some of your filmmaking has been partly financed to increase skills and provide opportunities in Ivory Coast. How has the industry changed since you began?
When you make an international film in Ivory Coast, a lot of young people learn something about cinema with us. To have a professional crew come from Ivory Coast, Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Canada and France to work with a lot of young actors is a very good start for them. After the experience they are more professional.
Lacôte (right) watches Ivorian actor Isaach de Bankole performing a scene from the film “Run” in 2013. Credit: SIA KAMBOU/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
“Run” (Lacôte’s 2014 debut feature) was the first feature film made in Ivory Coast for 10 years, because of civil war. Today, Ivory Coast is on the map of international cinema. It’s important for me — even if it’s one film. We don’t want to be outside this map. We have our vision, our stories and our way of filming, and we want to bring it and to participate. It’s a political position to be in Venice and Toronto, because Africa today is left out of a lot of things. And we don’t want to be left out of cinema.