TIFF 2021: Saloum

With a mix of horror and western genres, Jean Luc Herbulot’s Saloum spotlights unlikely heroes, traditional beliefs and a whole lotta action to grace any film fanatic’s eyeballs.

Chaka (Yann Gael), Raffa (Roger Sallah), and Minuit (Mentor Ba) are a trio called the Bangui’s Hyenas. These mercenaries clean up for the military in 2003, during the Guinea-Bissau coup. They take a Mexican drug dealer Felix (Renaud Farah), and his spoils-bars of gold and drugs-aiming for a drop in Dakar, Senegal. Midway to their destination, their small aircraft runs out of fuel, so Chaka lands them in the Sine-Saloum Delta, where he says there’s a place for them to rest and refuel before finishing their mission. Arriving at a hostel where the guests are expected to pitch in with chores during their stay, the cordial host, Omar (Bruno Henry) and Salamane (Babacar Oualy), his right-hand man, welcome them.  Other guests are taking respite at the hidden getaway, too: Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), a deaf, firecracker of a woman who knows the history of the infamous Hyenas, and musician couple Youce (Senegalese rapper Cannabasse) and Sephora (Marielle Salmier). Things are polite but tense, and Minuit, the mystic of the crew, feels there is something not quite right in this riverside paradise. He’s right, of course, since a dangerous pact and a revenge plot that no one knows about threatens to put everyone in supernatural jeopardy.

Renaud Farah, Roger Sallah, Mentor Ba, Yann Gael Courtesy of LACME STUDIOS

I want Saloum to get a standing ovation wherever it plays because that’s what I did in my apartment as the credits rolled. I’m betting this film is sure to be a fan favourite with a straightforward, in-your-face opening, three charismatic leads, plus a fantastic script and cinematography. The story comes from Herbulot and Pamela Diop, his writing partner and producer. It’s unique but relatable, and the use of sign language to incorporate witty banter and create relationships is brilliant and unexpected, but quite honestly, it should be used more in cinema. I also loved the supernatural threat and the use of digital effects, but that’s all I’ll say to stay spoiler-free. You won’t question the bond between these three mercenaries, linked through a spiritual brotherhood, making you root for them even though they aren’t the typical  “good guys”. I want to say more about a deeper cut of children enduring real-world horrors and their loss of innocence, but I’ll stay spoiler-free once again.

Herbulot already has a Netflix series Sakho and Mangane and what looks like high octane features on his resume. His style is sharp and slick, so Saloum will surely capture North American audiences. What he also does is lure you in with African mysticism, blending the modern and traditional seamlessly. You’ll see references to his influences translated in a fresh way; horror and old-school westerns swirling in imaginative storytelling.

There’s not much else to say except see Saloum. Tell your friends and keep an eye on Herbulot and Diop because I get a feeling they’ll be blowing our minds much more in the future.

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