SIA: THE MYTH OF THE PYTHON (2001, Burkina Faso, 96 min.), directed by Dani Kouyaté; screenplay by Kouyaté, loosely adapted from the play The Legend of Wagadu Seen by Sia Yatabéré by Moussa Diagana; cinematography by Robert Millié; sound by Pierre Lorrain; edited by Zoë Durouchoux; music by Daniel Rousseau and Fantani Toure; with Sotigui Kouyaté (Watigué the General), Habib Dembelé (Balla the Griot), Hamadoun Kossoqué (Kerfa the Madman), Fatoumata Diawara (Sia), Ibrahim Baba Cissé (Mamadi), Kardiqué Lolco Traoré (the Emperor, Kaya Maghan), Fily Traoré (Kététigui), Mariétou Kouyaté (the Empress). In Bambara with English subtitles.

Legend tells us that at one time the Empire offered its most beautiful girls to the Python-God in return for prosperity. But where today does our story unfold? In which epoch? Jean Cocteau said, "Legends have the privilege of being ageless." So it is as you please.

--Prologue to Sia: Myth of the Python


This new film by Dani Kouyaté, the gifted artist who brought us Keita, Heritage of the Griot (shown in Festival #6 in 1996), operates simultaneously on three levels: as a visually compelling, exciting story set in a mythical past; as a political allegory, in which the events of the past are a continual commentary on Africa today; and as a rumination on the power and value of myth and legend. Kouyaté takes a traditional West African legend, in which a beautiful young virgin must be sacrificed to appease the anger of a powerful snake god and bring rain to the country, and gives it new life. On the surface it is a very simple story, but upon closer examination it reveals itself to be a penetrating analysis of the inter-relationship between male privilege, nationalistic chauvinism, a self-serving religious establishment, the misuse of tradition, and political greed and corruption.

The film opens in the mythical kingdom of Wagadu with seven priests performing some kind of rite, hidden in their hooded cloaks. They come to Kaya Maghan Cissé, the Emperor, and tell him that it is time for the periodic sacrifice of the virgin. The Kaya Maghan understands that this is a test of his power as a ruler, and immediately complies. The priests have chosen Sia, the most beautiful young girl in the town of Koumbi, even though she is engaged to Mamadi, a young soldier who is away, fighting at the front. Mamadi's uncle and guardian is General Wakhané, the leader of the army (played by the wonderful Sotigui Kouyaté, griot and father of the filmmaker, who played the griot in Keïta). Wakhané initially resists (we will later learn that he has a particular discomfort with the ritual), then accepts, for the good of the country and for his own political survival. Sia's father does the same, though her mother resists--setting a pattern that will be followed throughout the film, in which the women are almost universally braver and more honest than their male counterparts.

Sia escapes and remains hidden for much of the film. Loved by the ordinary people of the town, who have clearly had enough of the tyrant and his fawning courtiers, refuse to help in her discovery. For that, they are locked up, berated by the Emperor's griot, and beaten by the Emperor's soldiers. Most of them take their punishment glumly, but several do offer outright resistance: Sia's girlfriend Penda, a male barber, and most notably Kerfa the Madman.

Kerfa is a fascinating figure in the film. Unafraid to die ("I die and I wake every day," he cheerfully announces), he voices his contempt for the emperor and the other bigwigs openly and forcefully. He is a subversive, unpredictable element within the repressive regime, and the voice of conscience ("He who sows misery will reap nothing but penury," he repeats again and again). He clearly articulates the film's attitude towards the political status quo:

Python-God! God who devours his children! His most beautiful daughters! Python most misshapen! Deep in your stinking cave, what do you know of beauty? Be gone! All our daughters are beautiful. In fact, all is beautiful in Wagadu! The earth, the sky, the sun, the stars, the water, even the wind!

Interestingly, we come to learn that he is not protected by tradition or religion as a Holy Fool; rather, he is protected by political cynicism: the Emperor realizes that if Kerfa is killed, he will rise to the status of martyr and is better left alive. This allows Kerfa to push the limits further and further as the film progresses.

Kerfa's counterpart and moral contrast is the royal griot, Balla. Within the West African context, both traditional and contemporary, griots can play a variety of roles. Balla's brand of griot is not the historian/chronicler who keeps tradition alive that we saw in Kouyaté's first film, Keïta; rather, he is a praise-singer, a spokesperson for the ruler, a spin-doctor, and an astonishingly slippery and treacherous survivor. He embodies the moral corruption that Kerfa rails against, one which uses tradition in order to maintain and promote a corrupt status quo. Like the priests (who have their own agenda), he selects elements from history and legend that will promote his own position and help those in power to suppress the populace (women in particular) .

By the end of the film, we come to learn the truth about the Python-God, and the Kaya Maghan is brought down. But like all myth, the end of one cycle is but the beginning of another. The faces change, the technology changes, but Kerfa's warnings--and those implicitly of director Kouyaté, remain compelling challenges to us today.

* * *

Among the many talented filmmakers to have emerged from Burkina Faso, a country that supports and nurtures its filmmakers like no other in Africa, if not in the entire world, Dani Kouyaté is one of the shining stars. Born to a griot family on June 4, 1961, in Bobo Doulasso, Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta), Dani Kouyaté studied at the African Institute of Cinema Studies in Ouagadougou, then continued his studies in Paris at the Sorbonne, where he received a Master's degree in Cultural and Social Marketing. He also obtained a degree from the International School of Anthropology in Paris, and an advanced degree in Cinema from the University of Paris at St. Denis. Between 1990 and 1996 he was on tour in Europe and the U.S. as a storyteller, part of "La Voix du Griot" ("Voice of the Griot"), a theater show created by his father, the gifted actor, artist, and griot Sotigui Kouyaté (who plays the corrupt, complex general, Watigué in Sia). Dani Kouyaté also performed as a musician, playing guitar and a number of percussion instruments.

He began his film career in 1989 with the short film Bilakoro, co-directed with Issa Traoré de Brahima, then co-directed Tobbere Kossam with Philippe Baqué in 1991. In 1992 he shot another short, Les Larmes Sacrées du Crocodile (The Sacred Tears of the Crocodile). His first feature film was Keïta! L'Heritage du Griot (Keita! Heritage of the Griot in 1995, which featured his father as the old griot. In 1999 he made several episodes of the TV series A Nous La Vie (Life Is Ours) for Burkina television. Sia: Myth of the Python, loosely based on the play The Legend of Wagadu Seen by Sia Yatabéré by the Mauritanian playwright Moussa Diagana, is Kouyaté's second feature film.

--Notes by Michael Dembrow


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