As I watch the films for the 2020-2021 British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA), I am so hoping that Night of the Kings will be included in the Film, not in the English language category.

Night of the Kings (La Nuit des Rois) is a celebration of storytelling, written and directed by the Ivorian filmmaker, Phillipe Lacôte. It premiered at the 77th Venice International Film Festival and won the Amplify Voices award at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It is also the official submission of Côte d’Ivoire for Best International Feature Film category of the 93rd Academy Awards.

The film is set in Côte d’Ivoire’s La MACA prison, where the prisoners, led by the ‘Dangôro’, run affairs and the guards have little control. As the Dangôro weakens from illness, he declares the Night of Roman and appoints a young, new inmate as ‘Roman’ – the prison storyteller. Per prison tradition, the newcomer must tell any story he chooses until dawn, in order to stay alive.

The film wanders into the realm of fantasy through Roman’s embellished account of the life and adventures of a local gangster called the Zama King in a style very reminiscent of the griots, West African custodians of oral tradition. Roman’s tale captivates the other inmates who feature as chorus, dancers and play-actors at intervals, transforming the prison to a stage.

You can watch an interview with Phillipe Lacôte at the virtual TIFF 2020, where he speaks about the inspiration for the story: a friend of his was coming out of jail and told him about a prisoner in “charge of storytelling.” He thought it was a great idea for a film!

The film is reminiscent of the art and act of storytelling. “What interests me”, said the director, “is how storytelling can save people from violence”. For casting, he went to the popular neighbourhood of Abidjan and found Kone Bakary, who plays Roman, along with many other newcomers to the screen.

This is the second feature film from Phillipe Lacôte whose first feature film, Run (2014), was shown at Cannes Film Festival.

Night of the Kings is a Canadian co-production, shot by the Quebec born cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille. If like me you have seen City of God and Gomorrah, then add Night of the Kings to the list of films to watch. Let us hope an Ivorian director will bring an Oscar to Africa in 2021!

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