Sensitive Tiger-winning documentary looks at the impact of terror group Boko Haram on the lives of young people
Dir/scr: Cyrielle Raingou. Cameroon/France. 2023. 75mins
A subdued but tense glimpse into the terrorism-darkened lives of three children in a Cameroon refugee-settlement, The Spectre of Boko Haram is a dutiful, empathetic and sensitive feature-length debut from writer-director Cyrielle Raingou. Breaking no new formal ground and clocking in at a brisk 75 minutes, it scooped the top prize in Rotterdam’s Tiger competition, and this success will doubtless open further festival doors, especially at documentary-oriented events and those with human-rights themes, while the intimate scale of the production means that little will be lost in the transition to likely small-screen play.
The emphasis here is not so much on what Boko Haram is or does, but rather its impact upon those whose lives have been shaped by its existence
The militant Islamist organisation Boko Haram has achieved prominent notoriety in the last two decades, operating out of north-east Nigeria and violently impacting upon neighbouring areas in Chad, Mali, Niger and Cameroon. Around the world the group (whose official name translates as “Group of the People of Sunnah for Dawa and Jihad”) is best known for its staunch opposition to the education of girls and women; ‘Boko Haram’ is a semi-slang term meaning ’Western education is forbidden’.
Raingou proceeds on the basis that the viewer is aware of Boko Haram and its goals; the only direct information imparted is via opening title-cards which somewhat vaguely state that ’the terrorist threat lurks in the mountains’. The decision to avoid sketching the bigger picture is evidently a deliberate one; the emphasis here is not so much on what Boko Haram is or does, but rather its impact upon those whose lives have been shaped by its existence.
The film’s main focus is on three protagonists in Kolofata, very close to the Nigerian border: Falta (aka Yake), a girl of around 12 whose father was among eight killed by a suicide bomber; and the Nigerian brothers Mohamed (approximately Falta’s age) and Ibrahim (a little younger). The brothers were previously in effect boy-soldiers for Boko Haram; the cheerful pair chat in matter-of-fact style about horrifying atrocities in which they were forced to take part.
Operating in conventionally observational fly-on-the-wall style, Raingou eavesdrops on conversations where unspoken matters count just as much as audible words; we read between the lines to glean a picture of the traumas undergone by these ordinary-seeming youths. There is little remarkable about individual scenes, and indeed the film sometimes seems underpowered and even innocuous - but there is considerable cumulative impact.
Little in the way of drama or incident occurs until around the 50-minute mark, when Falta is diagnosed with malaria (thankfully not serious), and the brothers suddenly go missing — there are rumours the pair may have drowned. But Raingou keeps everything at a low emotional temperature throughout, and is chiefly concerned with evoking the quotidian lives of her subjects.
Among the youth of Kolofata education is clearly paramount (most of the pupils we see, especially Falta, are assiduously studious) but not all-consuming – work must also be done, and tiny goat herd Aladji illustrates the conflict between schooling and farming. In tandem with co-cinematographer Bertin Fotso, Raingou economically conveys the unrelieved poverty and substandard infrastructure of Kolofata, amid the natural splendours of its hilly environs.
The inescapable presence of heavily-armed soldiers (allied to the militaristic nature of school discipline) adds ominous notes of danger, accentuated by the occasional rat-a-tat of not-so-distant gunfire, the noise of passing helicopter, the rumbles of thunder. In a film which eschews visual flourish, Raingou does include one striking vista of black clouds lowering above a darkened landscape, with only a narrow band of sunlit sky visible between the two — perhaps symbolising the slim, optimistic possibility of a brighter future for Kolofata’s kids.
Production companies: Tara Group, Label Video, Je Capture Ma Realite
International sales: Label Video, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Dieudonne Alaka, Veronique Holley
Cinematography: Bertin Fotso, Cyrielle Raingou
Editing: Christine Bouteiller