SARRAOUNIA, a 1986 film from Burkina Faso screened in the US in 1994, is a low-key historical drama depicting a French officer's frenzied obsession with the subjugation of a defiant tribal sorceress-queen whose armed resistance inspires other tribes to join her. Mauritanian filmmaker Med
Hondo aims less for an emotional saga of indigenous resistance to colonial rule than a series of tableaux offering a dispassionate overview of the different historical forces at work in the colonization of Africa.
In 1898, the French send military expeditions into Central Africa, burning and plundering smaller villages, while sparing the larger Muslim centers in exchange for co-operation and support. Scorned as a witch and a pagan by the Muslims, Sarraounia (Ai Keita), queen of the Aznas, calls for
resistance to the French and seeks support from neighboring Muslim villages, whose elders debate the wisdom of helping her. The powerful Serkin Arewa offers to guide the French to Lugu Village, Sarraounia's stronghold, while his son elects to ride with his followers to join Sarraounia.
French Captain Voulet (Jean-Roger Milo) hears of Sarraounia's defiance and sends his officers and Sudanese troops toward her village, despite rumblings of discontent among his men and explicit orders to wait for Colonel Klobb, commander of the Central African Expedition. Voulet reaches the
fortified Lugu Village and begins a siege. When the French cannon finally blow the village walls apart, the Aznas flee into the forest to watch and wait. Colonel Klobb finally catches up with Captain Voulet but is shot dead by him. Severing all ties to the French army, Voulet vows to continue the
path of conquest, promising rewards of plunder and women to his men. Shocked at their Captain's descent into madness, the Sudanese mutiny and kill him, plunging the mission into chaos. In the nearby forest, Sarraounia rallies refugees and survivors from surrounding villages.
SARRAOUNIA confronts head-on the clash of cultures between Europe's colonial forces and African resisters. Presented in a straightforward style, the film takes pains to present the varied reactions to the French by the different groups affected: the Muslims, the animist tribes, and the Sudanese
troops who kill for the French. After some intriguing opening scenes involving the training of Sarraounia in the ways of war and the properties of herbs, the title character remains in the background for much of the film, as the emphasis shifts to the French and the turmoil caused by their
imperialist zeal. While clear in their sympathy for Sarraounia and the handful of Muslims who put aside religious differences to join her cause, the filmmakers allow the audience to see the French officers up close. The brutality and racism ingrained in the officers' behavior is frankly depicted,
but the slow, enveloping madness which gradually overtakes Captain Voulet is charted with some sympathy. The subtle but unmistakable lesson is that colonialism not only causes hardship for its victims, but drives its practitioners mad.
The didactic tone, which gives the film the air of a history lesson at times, is alleviated by the well-executed battle scene and imaginative use of tracking and crane shots, in addition to a careful, deliberate editing structure that guides audiences smoothly through the welter of participants
and complex issues involved in this clash between powerful historical forces. The restraint shown by the filmmakers results in an intelligent, informative, and vividly realized historical drama of an event little-known to western audiences but of great resonance to Africans. (Violence, sexualsituations.)
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- Released: 1986
- Rating: NR
- Review: SARRAOUNIA, a 1986 film from Burkina Faso screened in the US in 1994, is a low-key historical drama depicting a French officer's frenzied obsession with the subjugation of a defiant tribal sorceress-queen whose armed resistance inspires other tribes to joi… (more)