TASUMA, THE FIGHTER ((Burkina Faso, 2003, 90 min.), written and directed by Kollo Daniel Sanou; cinematography by Nara Kéo Kosal; edited by Andrée Davanture; music by Cheick Tidiane Seck; with Mamadou Zerbo (Sogo Sonon, aka Tasuma), Aï Keïta (Dafra, his wife), Serges Henri (Crazy Doba), Noufou Papa Ouédraogo (Young Bakara), Sonia Karen Sonou (Young Oumou), Khalil Raoul Bessani (Khalil), Stanislas Soré (Adama, his “Partner”), Safiatou Sanou (Zoua), Harouna Ouédraogo (Tinga). In French and Jula with English subtitles.
We began this festival in 1991 with Ousmane Sembène’s remarkable Le Camp de Thiaroye (1987), a film that tells the true story of a group of Senegalese soldiers about to be demobilized from the French army at the end of World War II. Having suffered extreme privation and hardship, including incarceration in Nazi prisoner of war camps, they proudly await their honors, mustering-out pay, and liberation from colonial abuse. Instead, they find themselves treated with contempt and condescension by French officers who are committed to return to the colonial status quo, with tragic results for the “Tirailleurs Sénégalais.” It is a powerful, haunting tale.
Tasuma, The Fighter, by veteran Burkinabe cineaste Kollo Daniel Sanou, covers some of the same terrain and works with some of the same underlying themes, but handles it in a very different way. The director’s own father was one of these veterans of French foreign wars (though his father was of a younger generation, a veteran of the Indochina and Algerian colonial wars of the 1950s and 1960s). Kollo Sanou held a deep affection and admiration for his father and his father’s comrades-in-arms. He chose to make a film that pays homage to their strength and determination, but also plays with their foibles and deep humanity.
He does this by means of his central character, old Sogo Sanou, who was forcibly conscripted from his village as a young man, served on the front lines with distinction (gaining the nickname “Tasuma” or “Firepower”), came to take pride in the military life but also to hate the destruction of war. After his demobilization, he returned to his village and became a farmer. As the film begins, we see him working his fields, when he is interrupted by the sound of gunfire nearby. It turns out that members of the Burkina army are on training maneuvers and are firing live ammunition. He is astounded at the incompetence of this new generation of soldiers (one of them has even carelessly dropped a grenade, which Sogo pockets, but which will return later in the film) and berates them; we quickly see his pride and force of character.
We are then introduced to the village where he lives: his wife, Dafra, Sogo’s counterpart in strength and decency (but much more sensible, as we will see); crazy Doba, who takes pictures of everyone and everything with his toy camera, and leads a group of children in singing narrative tributes to the heroic Sogo; the village chief; young Bakary and his worthy love interest, Oumou, daughter of the chief; Sogo’s Fulani rival (The Fulani, or Peul, are a major ethnic group in the region; Sogo’s group, the Bobo, are another.); the other older men, who seemingly spend most of their time sitting and conferring; and the village women, who do all the work, even as they hone the sharpness of their tongues. Boisterous and traditional, the village is idealized as a place apart (literally isolated), ultimately a place of contentment, a place worth fighting for.
The next day, Sogo exchanges his comfortable, traditional dress for his military outfit, replete with medals, which he dons with loving pride. He then gets on his bicycle and heads to Bobo, the town that serves as regional center. He is a man with a mission. He has finally reached the age of 65, the age at which he can begin to tap his quarterly veteran’s pension. His wife will no longer be deprived of the goods that she deserves, and he will at last see his long service recognized and rewarded. But such is not to be. He runs into obstacle after obstacle (we ultimately learn that this has been going on for two years), but everyone assures him that his paperwork will come through any day. Lured by their assurances and succumbing to the enticements of Khalil, a local Lebanese businessman, Sogo finally decides that if the money is coming, he might as well start spending it—by purchasing on credit. He orders an expensive kerosene mill, so that the village women no longer have to grind their millet by hand.
Overnight, he becomes the hero of the village. The local praise singer (a woman with a powerful, lovely voice) sings homages to his strength, his generosity, his ancestry. The chief offers him his daughter, generating despair in Bakary and in Dafra contempt. Doba takes his picture and continues to lionize him. Everyone loves him for the hero that he is—except for one little problem: there is still no money coming from
The edifice of the great man begins to crumble. Faced with penury, bankruptcy, and ultimate imprisonment, easy-going, compliant Sogo finally loses patience with the system. And becomes once again Tasuma, the Fighter. But his comrades-in-arms will come from an unexpected source.
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Kollo Daniel Sanou has been involved in television and film production for many years. He first studied film at the cinema department of the National Institute of Arts in Abidjan,
Tasuma was a project that the director struggled with for more than a dozen years. Much of it was inspired by his experiences growing up around his father and the other veterans. He wanted to tell their story, and to tell it with humor, in a way that made them out to be more than just victims. He was fortunate to discover Mamadou Zerbo, a retired teacher, to play his protagonist. Though non-professional, Zerbo manages to bring a great deal of grace and force to the role of Sogo, a tribute to the director’s skill in working with actors. Several of the other actors have appeared in other films from
Sanou also reveals his skill as a technical director. He makes effective use of color, texture, and music; simple in structure, the film moves easily from scene to scene. The city, with its clubs and hustlers and government offices (where nothing much gets done) is nicely contrasted with the rhythm of village life (particularly nice are the night scenes in Sogo’s home, tableaux of solid—though not always easy—matrimony). With his griots and griottes; crazy Doba and the children who love him; the humor that serves to reinforce the humanity of his characters, even as it undermines their pretensions; the ultimate decency and dignity, charity, and strength of his main characters, Kollo Daniel Sanou offers us a very entertaining film, and a memorable one, with serious themes and judgments not too far in the background.
--Notes by Michael Dembrow
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