The Night of Truth
Directed by Fanta Régina Nacro
Released 9 September
Continuing our series on the British Film Institute’s Blackworld events in the run up to Black History Month, we look at The Night of Truth. This is the first major African feature to be directed by a woman and contains echoes of the wars in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.
After ten years of bitter ethnic conflict in a fictional African state, Colonel Theo, the leader of the rebel Bonandé people, is suing for peace with the president, whose government is made up entirely from Nayaks.
Theo requests that the president and his retinue come for a feast in his compound to cement the peace. Though peppered with brutal flashbacks, most of the film takes place on the night of the feast.
The director makes fascinating use of non-professional actors, with all the male parts being played by serving soldiers in the army of Burkina Faso.
Children mutilated in the fighting cluster around the compound, never allowing the consequences of war to be forgotten. Around the walls women are painting images depicting the horror and suffering of the war.
Two of the central characters are the president’s wife Edna, whose son was executed by the rebels, and Theo’s wife Soumari, whose father, an opposition politician, was killed by the government.
Two others complete the balance of the story.
Desperately loyal to Theo, foolish story-telling Tomoto is a shell-shocked old soldier who wants the war to continue.
He believes every piece of prejudice and bigotry against the other side.
Meanwhile Fatou has returned after the ceasefire from across the lines. She had married a Nayak and become outcast.
She is a constant reminder that an alternative was once possible, which might flower again.
Though there is no doubt that originally the Bonandé were in the right, rebelling to demand an end to oppression, in the context of the film war only leads to dehumanisation amid the endless fighting.
Though the two communities have to talk in French to understand each other, no other reference is made to the former colonialist power or a world beyond the struggling groups.
Though this lack of context is a weakness, it allows a suffocating intimacy that makes it easy to see how easily rumour becomes fact.
Tomoto repeats a tirade of ethnic slurs on the Nayak from the trivially abusive claim that they smell to the bizarre idea that they are part snake.
The humour of this absurdity is undercut by his use of the term “cockroaches”, the same abuse used by the murderous Interhamwe militia in Rwanda.
These prejudices are overcome in a comic scene where the Nayaks and Bonandé warily sample each other's delicacies, respectively snake and caterpillars.
The horrors of the war itself are harder to forget. Each character has a story of horror, of personal mutilation, guilt or family massacre.
The Night of Truth can’t answer complex questions about the causes of the various wars that have recently plagued Africa and it doesn’t attempt to.
It is more concerned with the possibility of reconciliation and rebuilding. It raises these issues in a dramatic and involving way without ever becoming simplistic and is well worth seeing.