A man named Saga (played by Rasmane Ouedraogo) returns home to his desert village after being away for two years. He hopes to reunite with the woman he loves, Nogma (Inna Cisse), but finds out that his father had married her in his absence, even though she was promised to Saga. Ignoring the warnings of his brother, Kougri (Assane Ouedraogo), who reminds him of the law (“tilaï”) stating that first, it is forbidden to go against the father’s decision, and second, to take another man’s wife, Saga restarts his love affair with Nogma. When the father finds out, he (along with the whole village) sees this as a betrayal and as incest, deciding together with the village elders that the law must be enforced, and Saga killed. Lots are drawn, and the person designated to be the executioner is Kougri. The brother however, cannot kill Saga. He lets him escape, forcing him to promise that he will never come back, and making everyone believe he is dead. Nogma finds out that her beloved is alive, flees the village, finds Saga and marries him. In the meantime, the two brothers’ mother dies. Saga finds out and, wanting to see his mother one last time, breaks the promise he made to his brother, returning home again, this time with tragic consequences.
This Burkinabé film presents a symbolic tale set in pre-colonial, patriarchal Africa anchored in tradition, taking a sort of a detached anthropological approach to the storytelling. It immerses the viewer into this foreign culture without too much explanation, kind of like Ten Canoes (2006) (but without the humor) or Brightness (1987) (without the magic). The tension, for me, came from not knowing the characters’ customs, not knowing what it will happen next, not knowing exactly how those people will react – because I wasn’t familiar with this culture.
The style of this movie has been called by a reviewer (Gianfranco Della Valle) an “African neorealism.” Indeed, everything, from the direction, cinematography, script to acting tries to be as close to that reality as possible. I don’t know for sure, but I’m inclined to think that Idrissa Ouedraogo (the writer/director) used non-professional actors (as was the case with most Italian neorealist films). The performers don’t seem to have a lot of experience with acting, but they do a good job in making their characters feel very real, the acting being naturalistic and low-key. In fact, low-key and discretion are, in my opinion, the key words for this film. The cinematography by Pierre-Laurent Chénieux and Jean Monsigny is very fluid, following every character’s movements – but in a very discreet manner, not drawing attention to itself. Same thing with the music – it is quite scarce, non-emphatic, using mostly wind instruments and a touch of bass guitar. Abdullah Ibrahim orchestrates a jazzy sound, with a few a capella vocals here and there – just gently highlighting certain scenes, mainly when people are moving from one place to another. The dialogue is to the point, communicating ideas in a very effective manner.
This realism enforces the film’s symbolic undertones. It makes the ideas behind it work even more, giving a real context to abstract concepts, even if the law in this case is invented (as the director reportedly stated in an interview). The movie asks questions about loyalty, respect toward traditions, the law, and your elders above any personal feelings, about individual choice vs tradition, about egotism and selfishness. We are meant to reflect upon the relation between people and law, about what could happen if one follows blindly a strict rule. At the same time, we are made to think about how putting one’s own selfish needs above the law can have dire consequences for everyone.
If I were to find a flaw in the movie, it’s that it doesn’t explain the necessity of the law, and why was it needed for Saga to be killed. True, the story is more symbolic than real, but still, it would have been better, in my opinion, to clarify that issue, especially given the realism of the style. Plus, I feel that the film’s socio-political message would have been more powerful if they were using a real law, instead of an imagined one.
At about 78 minutes long, “Tilaï” is short enough to keep you entertained and long enough for its ideas to stay with you after the end credits. This film is foreign only in name, and that shouldn’t be something that would prevent you from seeing it. The problems it raises are universal, present in any type of society.