In “Saloum,” a quick and furious crime-horror-thriller that twists and turns its way across the mangroves, islands, and inlets of Senegal’s Sine-Saloum coastal area, vengeance is served with much style and inventiveness. The second feature by Congolese filmmaker Jean Luc Herbulot freely mixes and marries the cinematic languages of spaghetti Westerns, samurai dramas, and classic monster movies to tell an exciting and distinctly African story. It is centered on a trio of mercenaries holed up in a strange holiday camp harboring a sinister secret.
There isn’t much else in Senegalese film that compares to “Saloum,” which is sure to be in high demand on the festival circuit and has the pure entertainment potential to enjoy a lucrative commercial life beyond that.
Part of a tiny but rising wave of African genre film gaining worldwide attention, “Saloum” marks a successful start to feature production for Lacme Studios, the Dakar-based business founded in 2019 by Herbulot and his producer and creative partner Pamela Diop. The outfit’s second movie, “Zero,” is released in 2022, and anticipation is bound to be strong.
Herbulot delivers confidence and exquisite visual touches to “Saloum,” building on the promise he demonstrated with his first movie “Dealer” (2014), and as creator-director of 2019’s “Sakho & Mangane” (the first Africa-filmed, French-language TV series acquired by streaming giant Netflix). Herbulot’s ability to retain the story’s driving momentum and cohesiveness as the tone swings from action thriller to somber crime melodrama, eerie folk horror, full-tilt monster movie, and back again is most astounding.
Guinea-Bissau is the first destination on the genre-hopping journey. The Bangui Hyenas, a trio of mercenaries with legendary, almost mythical reputations in these parts, extract Mexican drug lord Felix (Renaud Farah) and a suitcase of gold bullion during the country’s 2003 military coup (described as bloodless in mainstream media reports but very distinctly not so here). According to an omniscient voiceover narrator, these hired gunmen are supposed to be “sorcerers” whose exploits are “told at midnight to thrill kid troops high on crack.” The Hyenas’ simple mission is to transport Felix to Dakar and collect a mound of cash in exchange for their time and trouble.
Chaka (Yann Gael) leads the fearsome crew, a gorgeous, clever, and intellectual type. On his flanks are tough guy Rafa (Roger Sallah) and Midnight (retired telecom tech-turned actor Mentor Ba), an older man with a stunning shock of white dreadlocks and a strange, otherworldly aura about him. These men are the type of antiheroes that people find exciting and engaging. They are fiercely devoted and linked by an unbreakable code of honor.
When their escape plane’s fuel tank bursts, the Hyenas are forced to land in the Sine-Saloum Delta, where Senegal’s Saloum River meets the North Atlantic. According to our narrator, Sine-Saloum is “a holy and protected region” and “a country of stories and doomed rulers.” True to those statements, “Saloum” takes on an unpleasant folk horror-like atmosphere from the time Chaka guides the Hyenas and Felix to Baobab Camp, an out-of-the-way holiday spot he recalls from his childhood.
Baobab is a collection of beach huts and cabins owned by Omar (Bruno Henry), an affable eccentric who assigns duties to his visitors each day as a lodging condition. Omar also conducts communal dinners where the wide-ranging subjects of discourse include post-colonial African politics and the words of Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s anti-imperialist, Pan-Africanist first president. Tense undercurrents flow through these otherwise pleasant encounters, as though the slightest incorrect word or glance may send things spiraling downhill.
Any plans Chaka and company had to stay low until they could fix the plane and fly to Dakar were quickly dashed. Souleymane (Ndiaga Mbow), a smiling police commander, and Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), an intense young mute lady who recognizes the Hyenas and threatens to expose them unless certain conditions are satisfied, are among the camp’s guests. It seems entirely natural for both Chaka and Rafa to be fluent in sign language in this type of setting — and the company of these eccentric individuals. The screenplay effectively employs this method to heighten suspense and precipitate unexpected story twists.
The strange aura at Baobab coalesces into something openly evil about the midway point. Chaka’s recurrent nightmare serves as the spark. These recurring visions have prompted him to return to this location and exact vengeance on those guilty of atrocities. Worse, these atrocities are still being committed in the name of a heinous agreement between earthly and otherworldly powers.
The unexpected and stunning result of Chaka’s involvement in the release of hideous entities who bear no similarity to the many monsters we’ve seen in horror films over the years. At first glance, these creatures appear to be birds swarming in a whirlpool-like configuration before transforming into human-shaped beings with horns. But there’s more to these fantastic CG creations. Earth elements such as leaves, soil, and other organic stuff appear to be included in the mix. The specific makeup of these entities is unknown, but their power to cause shock, suspense, and fear is undeniable. Unlike many horror films, “Saloum” allows its creatures to lose nearly entirely in broad daylight, and it benefits from it.
“Saloum” maintains its plot and character pistons going throughout the mayhem, packing a massive amount of action and information into only 80 minutes. Awa’s motivations and Midnight’s link with spiritual concerns are part of a concluding act that gives the Hyenas a heroic dimension and extremely gratifying conclusions to the film’s multi-layered plot.
“Saloum” is filmed in widescreen by first-time feature DP Gregory Corandi and set to a fantastic score by French multi-instrumentalist Reksider that contains everything from beautiful choruses to pounding afro drum sounds. The film’s technical features are all spot on.