From Mali, writer-director Souleymane Cissé’s Finyé opens with an audible howl of wind superimposed on a panned misty landscape, exquisitely photographed in color by Étienne Carton de Grammont, in which there is no visible stir, alerting us that the title does not refer to weather. The wind echoes with cultural memory, African tradition, past superstition; it is also the “wind of change” in the present predicting the future. It is an incipient wind of fire.
There is another, related image that punctuates the film on at least three occasions that I recall: a young boy, wearing a half-real, half-otherworldly expression (I was reminded of the otherworldly child in Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, 1930), carries water from the sea in a large orange bowl, onto the land, delivering it to someone initially out-of-frame: an image of perfect obedience as well as hinted self-possession and silent mystery, both naturalistic and magical. Perhaps I myself was dreaming—this is the sort of film that incorporates the viewer’s dreams—but one of the appearances of this snippet may actually occur in someone’s drug-hallucinated dream. The child is a timeless image here, but also an echo of the past and a prediction of the future. His eyes are eyes of wind.
Finyé, which richly merits the grand prize it won for Cissé at the Ouagadougou Panafrican Film and Television Festival, revolves around the brutal military-police put-down of on-campus university student demonstrations protesting the manipulation of final exam results to determine unfairly who will be allowed a future and who, at least for the moment, won’t be. All this is during the dictatorship of Moussa Traoré. Traoré’s rule of Mali from 1968 to 1991 is reflected in the provincial military governor, an unyielding authoritarian figure who at home ferociously beats his youngest wife and at work imprisons both his own daughter, Batrou, the gentleness of whose smile is irresistible, and the boy she loves, Bâ. Bâ’s grandfather is a remnant of the past, a tribal chieftain connected to natural magic; his opulent garb, somewhat ridiculous, contrasts with the cold-blooded efficiency of the governor’s outfit, that of an Army colonel. When the latter shoots the former in the back, the former’s thick robes—and God knows what else—deflect the bullet.
In the end, the governor is ordered to release those he imprisoned at hard labor (he has already released those who, bending to his will, have signed declarations of their criminality); but at least one of the students has already died, and the others will not forget.
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