Three films made in Africa complement the 25th-anniversary celebration of DanceAfrica at BAM. Sia, the Dream of the Python and Nelio’s Story bring to the party a focus on issues of violence, superstition, and social responsibility. They’re beautiful, in the way that barely mediated emotion is beautiful. (The BAM roster opens Wednesday with screenings of Abbas Kiarostami’s recently released ABC Africa.)
Dani Kouyaté’s Sia, shot in Burkina Faso and Paris, is adapted from a seventh-century legend; the subtitled costume drama is set in a remote African empire before cell phones, guns, and the internal combustion engine, but the politics that thump through it are as timely as tomorrow. Kerfu, a rowdy character who may be mad, paces and spouts platitudes that provoke the emperor’s thuggish soldiers. The most beautiful girl in the village, chosen as a ritual sacrifice to the mysterious Python God, flees for her life; Kerfu shelters and counsels her. The fascist military threatens her family and friends. Forces of modernity have infected the thinking of the villagers, who sense the barbarity of the sacrifice. The hunky monarch calls the madman in for a consultation. Kerfu speaks truth to power, and pays the inevitable price.
The film looks like it’s been selectively colorized, its sepia tones occasionally flashing forth a golden dress, a blue T-shirt, tan uniforms. Mostly we watch faces, see people change their minds. Sia’s fiancé is summoned from a far-off battlefield only to be sucked into a political coup, torn between devotion to his woman and dreams of imperial command; when he chooses the latter, Sia herself moves into madness.
Sia becomes a bloodbath of Shakespearean proportions as even the good guys kill one another in an effort to preserve illusions. Nelio’s Story, a 1997 Swedish-Portuguese-Mozambican co-production to be screened at matinees over the weekend, begins with a similar massacre, this one all too contemporary, in a small Mozambican village. Guerrilla troops torch the town, murder the adults and babies, and conscript young boys. Ten-year-old Nelio, handed a gun and ordered to shoot his little brother, instead cuts down his vicious captor and runs for his life.
This unflinchingly naturalistic narrative, under the direction of Solveig Nordlund, is underscored by mere fragments of melody. It takes on mythic proportions as Nelio, exhausted from his ordeal and alone in the bush, finds a variety of protectors, including a mysterious woman who turns into a lizard. The kid is quick both physically and intellectually, and he’s fearless; soon he’s the leader of a gang of street urchins who come to revere him as a healer. He falls in with a gentle baker whose oven is in the lobby of a theater. Nelio’s Story begins when this luminous child is hunted down and shot, and unspools as he struggles to stay alive long enough to tell the baker his tale. All the children in the film are real-life street kids—like Nelio, orphaned victims of violence. They form a family watched over by an albino girl they come to love and fear. The baker’s final transfiguration of his young friend feels exactly right.