The repatriation of stolen treasures to Benin provokes this agile, cerebral documentary by Mati Diop


Source: Berlin International Film Festival


Dir/scr: Mati Diop. France/Senegal/Benin. 2024. 68 mins.

November, 2021. Twenty-six irreplaceable artefacts from the Kingdom of Dahomey are meticulously packaged up in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. They are to be returned to their place of origin, now Benin, West Africa, almost one hundred and thirty years after they were pillaged by French colonial forces. It’s cause for celebration in Cotonou, Benin, where the items will be displayed in an exhibition space in the presidential palace. But, as Mati Diop’s free-roaming and unconventional documentary hybrid explains, the 26 objects represent a tiny fraction of the 7,000 works looted by France. And the film poses further, more esoteric questions: can the soul of an artwork, and its meaning to people whose ancestors created it, be permanently altered by its enforced exile in a colonising country?

An agile, cerebral film

Diop’s follow-up to her Cannes Grand Prize-winning drama Atlantics is unlikely to match the audience reach of its predecessor, but that’s hardly the point of this agile, cerebral film. Using a combination of deft fly-on-the-wall footage, a centrepiece debate among students at the University of Abomey-Calavi and an unexpected element of fantasy, the film feels like an important contribution to an ongoing conversation about the legacy of colonialism in Africa, and to the thorny topic of restitution and repatriation of cultural heritage to the country of its origin.

Diop’s name and distinctive vision should ensure further interest among festival programmers and adventurous arthouse distributors and streamers. But the film’s intended audience will likely be its most engaged and receptive: the young people whose voices are so compellingly amplified in the film, those of formerly colonised African countries and their diaspora communities.

Perhaps the most audacious decision in the film is to give the purloined artefacts a voice of their own. For this, Diop recruited Haitian author Makenzy Orcel to write a poetic text in which the treasures – which include a throne, an animal-headed sculpture that represents King Glele and a warrior icon of King Ghezo – muse on their long exile and what awaits them at the end of the journey. Will they recognise their homeland? Will it recognise them? The text was then translated into old Fon, the language of the region which, like so much else, has been superseded by that of the French colonisers. Diop charged sound designer Nicolas Becker with creating a voice for the treasures, which was achieved by layering together a collage of different voices, male and female.

The effect is slightly disconcerting at first, but the arcane otherworldly quality and Orcel’s lyrical words work to powerful effect. Elsewhere the use of sound, together with electronic music by Wally Badarou and Dean Blunt, plays an important role in giving a sense of the power and significance of the items, as they embark on their belated return journey. Another key voice in the film is that of Calixte Biah, the Beninese curator who accompanies the treasures from Quai Branly to Cotonou. His reverence in the face of the artefacts, and his detailed assessments of their condition and identity provided a crucial historical context for the items.

But history, even history as charged as that of the Kingdom of Dahomey, with its links to the African slave trade and its Vodun religious practices (a precursor of Haitian voodoo) can run the risk of feeling disconnected from the modern world. And this is where the device of the University debate, an event that was organised and cast by the filmmakers but in which the participants speak freely and unscripted, comes into its own. The exchange of ideas is electric and galvanising. Themes include issues of language; the question of whether the return of the treasures is an event of historical significance or political expediency; the arrogance of a colonising country that not only pillages the history of the colonised but also replaces that country’s cultural references with its own. And it becomes clear that repairing the damage of colonialism was never going to be as simple as the grudging return of a few stolen artefacts.

Production company: Les Films du Bal, Fanta Sy

International sales: Les Films du Losange

Producers: Eve Robin, Judith Lou Lévy, Mati Diop

Cinematography: Josephine Drouin Viallard

Editing: Gabriel Gonzalez

Music: Wally Badarou, Dean Blunt