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Mati Diop Talks ‘Dahomey’

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Launching in competition in Berlin, Mati Diop’s “Dahomey” traces the path of 26 royal treasures purloined by French soldiers in 1892 and restituted to the country of Benin in 2021. Moving from Paris to Cotonou, the inventive documentary allows the artifacts to speak for themselves, reflecting on their journey in Fon-language dialogue often set against an ethereal and evocative synthpop score.

Variety spoke with filmmaker ahead of her film’s world premiere.

You’ve described the project as a ‘fantasy documentary.’ What does the term mean to you?

“Documentary” wouldn’t be enough, “fiction” wouldn’t be quite right either, and I needed a term that captured the hybrid nature. I also liked this almost playful way of reconciling two cinematic imaginations that we don’t often associate with one another. This fantasy element does not stem from giving the statues a voice and allowing them to tell their own story – from an African point of view, that’s as self-evident as reality itself. Of course artworks are imbued with souls and voices – there’s nothing supernatural about that! But the film has a haunted and haunting dimension linked to the music and the mood.

What drew you to musicians Wally Badarou and Dean Blunt to create that mood?

The voices that free themselves from the basements of European museums must also free themselves from stereotypes. I needed music that had a very lyrical feel, that conveyed a sense of flamboyance and majesty to return to the artifacts the power that was taken away from them. That fantasy dimension was part of a way to brink that back. Wally Badarou’s music reconnects me with a certain kind of 1980s fantasy cinema, whereas Dean Blunt’s tracks evokes a more spiritual dimension of the voices of the ancestors. Also, the fact these two Afro-descendant musicians have respective Beninese and Nigerian backgrounds amplifies the connection to the original land of the treasures alongside a sense of belonging. 

The camera gets close to the artifacts – in an early sequence even getting into the shipping crates as they readied for the voyage from France to Benin.

I wanted us to experience this scene from the point of view of the artifacts themselves, to give the impression of being right inside their experience, living with them as they leave the space in which they’ve been held captive for 130 years. I absolutely wanted the viewer to feel the historical weight of the moment, the weight and tension that I myself felt when bearing witness to historical change. That feeling needed to be palpable, tangible in every shot. And so the question of point of view was both central and permanent.

‘Dahomey’
© Les Films du Bal – Fanta Sy

Only you take a more clinical view upon the artifacts’ arrival, following local appraisers as they inspect the works.

It was fascinating to spend time with the Beninese experts and curators as they discovered the physical state of the works and actually assessed their condition. First, because we’re not used to doing so from an African perspective. But then, this sequence has an extremely strong metaphorical impact as well, since it reflects the physical consequences of time. It’s like a political, intimate, physical and psychic inspection of everything that actually contributed to the existence of this story.

Apart from the artifacts’ narration, the only other voices we hear belong to students debating the restitution at the local university. Why place so much emphasis on those debates?

It was absolutely essential to place Benin’s student youth at the heart of this film, because you simply cannot separate the issues of restoring cultural heritage from the questions posed by those of African students. What relationship do these students have with their history and past, and how was it transmitted to them? Do they relate to these works at all? And in terms of wider society, who might actually have the luxury of reconnecting with the works on display?

Plus, we could not limit ourselves just the Beninese government’s framing, because it’s really up to the youth to decide whether the moment is historic or not. In that way, restitution was really more of a prism through which we could ask young people about their relationship to themselves, to postcolonial issues, and to politics in the country too – to collide and contrast voices of the ancestral memorial past with this more youthful cry.

Going forward, what are your plans for Fanta Sy – the Senegal-based production outfit you launched for this film?

[Fanta Sy co-founder] Fabacary Assymby Coly has been a close artistic collaborator since 2013, and we wanted to continue that partnership by joining forces to set up a production company in Dakar. My next two projects are both linked to the African continent, and more than that, we’d also like to support young Senegalese filmmakers, or more globally young African filmmakers working on shorts and features. Alongside my own work, I want to put my energy and commitment toward other African voices. I don’t know what kind of producer I might be, how I might work with another filmmaker in that capacity, and I’m looking forward to finding out.

‘Dahomey’
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

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