Directed by: Jean Luc Herbulot || Produced by: Pamela Diop
Screenplay by: Jean Luc Herbulot, Pamela Diop || Starring: Yann Gael, Roger Sallah, Mentor Ba, Evelyne Ily Juhen
Music by: Reksider || Cinematography: Gregory Corandi || Edited by: Nicolas Desmaison, Alasdair McCulloch, Sebastien Prangere || Country: Senegal, France || Language: French, Wolof
Running Time: 84 minutes
The regional filmmaking culture with which I am the least familiar, by a mile, is that of Sub-Saharan Africa. While I was introduced to the dramatic works of classical Senegalese filmmakers like Osmane Sembène (e.g. Black Girl , Xala ) and Djibril Diop Mambéty (e.g. Touki Bouki ) in various undergraduate film courses, and have since dipped my toe into the cinema of Nigeria (also known as “Nollywood,” by some metrics the second most prolific filmmaking culture in the world by number of feature-film productions behind only India), my general interest in African cinema trails even that of mainland China. Extreme, formalized censorship of the arts a la the Chinese Communist Party does not exist in most, if any African countries to my knowledge, and I favor myself a dedicated bloodhound able to seek out even the most obscure worthwhile genre films with the help of the World Wide Web; so, what’s with my ignorance on this particular filmic subject?
I’m sure many an art history major or sociologist could surmise various postcolonial, global wealth inequality, and/or intercultural explanations for this cinephile blindspot, but regardless, most noteworthy films of the “Dark Continent” have either passed me by or I have not taken to them enough (e.g. The Wedding Party [2016, 2017]) to explore related films. A recent exception to that rule, however, is Saloum, the sophomore directorial feature of Congolese filmmaker Jean Luc Herbulot, who’s worked on various film, short film, and television works throughout France and the French-African diaspora since 2010. Often mentioned as one of the better horror features of 2021-2022 and one of the highest reviewed genre films within that timespan, there’s much to appreciate in Saloum, from its genre-blending nature (equal parts Western, horror, action, and drama) to its great location-photography to some impressive SteadiCam long-takes. The film, so named for its story’s regional setting in the Sine-Saloum, the depopulated, mangrove swamp-dominated parts of Senegal north of the Gambia but south of the Petite Côte (“Little Coast”), is also one of the more frustrating movies I’ve watched in recent years for its many good ideas, so-so execution of them, and indecisive screenplay.
The premise of Saloum is as follows: Three hired guns known as Bangui’s Hyenas (Yann Gael’s lead with Roger Sallah and Mentor Ba costarring) extract a Mexican drug lord out of Guinea-Bissau during that nation’s 2003 coup d’état, but are forced to land in the titular setting when their aircraft’s fuel tank is sabotaged by parties unknown. Our main characters thereafter seek refuge in a nearby inn where it becomes clear that Gael has additional plans beyond their mercenary work. What works about this movie is how effective its lead characterization is, Gael’s performance in particular, how well his arc dovetails with the movie’s thematic development and transition between different genres. Saloum’s flashbacks are brisk and well paced throughout the greater story, informing Gael’s motivation at different plot-points and helping us to understand his emotional status. He also has good chemistry with his two primary costars and the rest of the supporting cast.
When we examine Saloum beyond its protagonist, however, the screenplay’s narrative details and director of photography Gregory Corandi’s one-note camerawork in particular, the film starts to break down. The plot’s 2nd Act twist, while elaborating upon Gael’s backstory and numerous flashbacks, calls into question the entire setup of the film and why writers Herbulot and Pamela Diop bothered with the mercenary extraction-prologue to begin with. This revelation largely makes the entire premise of the movie superfluous, begging the question as to why the screenwriters didn’t opt for more straightforward narrative progression given how rushed the rest of the 84-minute runtime feels. This is not comparable to Psycho (1960), for example, where the events leading up to that film’s plot twist give its first act an ironic, almost black humor undertone, but rather feels like an inefficient use of screentime.
To that end, the horror twist that follows Gael’s character revelation doesn’t live up to the hype: Our heroes just have to wear ear-protection to avoid a gimmicky supernatural curse (think of an audio version of Bird Box’s  antagonists) and combat various stunt guys covered in awkward, incoherent computer generated particle FX. The artistic design of these antagonists to the daytime lighting around them to the overarching curse itself are not intimidating, scary, or interesting in any way, and at some point the nonstop handheld camerawork that streamlined dialogue earlier in the film becomes grating after the second or third action scene.
While I wouldn’t describe Saloum as a bad film per se, its overwhelming critical reception is yet another example, I think, of Western/English-speaking film journalists giving a pass to foreign films they feel have cultural merit outside their artistic style. Saloum’s storytelling is creative in many ways, and it feels like it takes inspiration from many types of cinema without ripping off any one of them, but it fumbles the execution of its numerous script elements and its central twist undercuts much of its story in retrospect. I would be interested to see Jean Luc Herbulot’s future French-African work with a bigger budget perhaps, but as this movie stands, its coverage is overblown and its genre-hybridization is unsatisfying.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: As a sub-Saharan African western, Saloum is alright, but as a supernatural horror thriller, it misses the mark due to both an inconsistent script as well as clear budgetary restrictions. I’d wager most English-speaking cinephiles like myself have a blindspot when it comes to African cinema as a whole, and while Saloum helps fill some of that knowledge gap, it doesn’t present anything other filmmakers in other industries haven’t done far better (e.g. Nope , Bone Tomahawk , Tremors , Near Dark , etc.).
—> ON THE FENCE
? I finally found a movie I thought was too fast paced instead of too longwinded! Hurrah?