By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
84 minutes of pure African genre mayhem, with little interest in pausing long enough for you to catch your breath….with this Senegalese western-action-horror hybrid Herbulot is here to sure as hell make you recognize [the historical context] on a sensory, emotional level.”
Strap in; Jean Luc Herbulot’s Saloum is nothing less than 84 minutes of pure African genre mayhem, with little interest in pausing long enough for you to catch your breath. Nor does it care to spoon feed its context to audiences for whom the many of its historical references don’t immediately ring bells. “2003 – the military declares a coup d’état”, declares an opening intertitle, then “Their pledge to restore order looks more like bloodshed”. Guinea-Bissau is not mentioned explicitly here, nor are General Veríssimo Correia Seabra or incumbent President Kumba Ialá. You don’t get the reference? Tough shit. Not familiar with the staggering abuse and scale of child soldiers across the African continent? Likewise. Saloum is here to entertain you, not educate you, but if you don’t have the contextual references that so strongly situate this film in time and place on an intellectual level, then – my god – Herbulot is here to sure as hell make you recognize it on a sensory, emotional one.
With its world premiere in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness section, this Senegalese western-action-horror hybrid is driven by a Morricone swagger as it darts between its tale of mercenaries, Mexican drug smugglers, its own reimagining of the American frontier myth, and some location-specific, malign folkloric supernatural spirits thrown in for good measure. The three mercenaries lie at the film’s heart – Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah), and Minuit (Mentor Ba), collectively known as Bangui’s Hyenas – who, when arriving in the low-key, isolated holiday camp located at the Sine-Saloum Delta located at the mouth of the Saloum River in Senegal, unleash hell (both literally and figuratively).
Saloum is driven by a fundamental fascination with the generic alchemy of combining the traditional crime story with something altogether more supernatural and otherworldly.”
As we see in the film’s fast paced opening scenes as the Hyenas do a job for a Mexican drug lord Felix (Renaud Farah), the fearsome reputation that puts them at the top of their field has garnered them an almost mythic status, “Guns for hire” who “live by fire”, as another intertitle describes them, when they meet a deaf woman called Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen) at the encampment in Saloum, she identifies them in an instant despite their attempts at anomonity, telling them through sign language “stories about heroes travel faster than bullets”.
Although Chaka, Raga, and Minuit arrive at the camp to lay low until the storm surrounding their latest job subsides and arrive under the aliases Cheikh, Rufin and Maudou respectively, Awa is no fool and uses her knowledge in an attempt to blackmail the trio into taking her with them. Hosted by the charming camp owner Omar (Bruno Henry) who Chaka remembers from a previous encounter, things at Saloum start volatile and only escalate from there, complicated further by the local legend which speaks of dark, mysterious supernatural forces that the camp’s inhabitants must deal with, as their own secrets, betrayals, and loyalties increasingly come to the fore.
Where this all goes frankly has to be seen to be believed, and it’s a wild, fun ride getting there. Much like Herbulot’s previous Netflix series Sakho & Mangane which also starred the brilliant Gael in a central role, Saloum is driven by a fundamental fascination with the generic alchemy of combining the traditional crime story with something altogether more supernatural and otherworldly.
As disparate as its composite parts may be in a generic sense, however, what pulls it all together is a compelling tale of vengeance that the film articulates with the evocative phrase that bookends the film: “We say that revenge is like a river whose bottom is reached only when we drown”. Spoken as it is by the film’s most unlikely character, there is a moving, poignant heart to this otherwise rollicking actioner with all the delicious surface trimmings of horror and the western thrown into the magical brew. And at its heart lies the friendship and love between three men, our Hyenas. “Together ‘til they end”, they tell each other in an intense group hug when one of the film’s darkest secrets is revealed. And boy, do they mean it.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same name, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.