(Idrissa Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso/Switzerland/France, 1990) 83 minutes


Director: Idrissa Ouedraogo
Producer: Idrissa Ouedraogo
Screenplay: Idrissa Ouedraogo
Photography: Jean Monsigny, Pierre Laurent Chenieux
Editor: Luc Barnier
Music: Abdullah Ibrahim
Rasmane Ouedraogo (Saga)
Ina Cisse (Nogma)
Roukietou Barry (Kuilga)
Assane Ouedraogo (Kougri)
Sibidou Sidibe (Poko)
Moumouni Ouedraogo (Tenga)
Mariam Barry (Bore)

Reviews and notes

That is the law: Ya tilai. Run the words through your head. Feel their frailty, their comforting resonance. Imagine the safety they would guarantee in a world that lived them to the letter. In the traditional societies of Burkina Faso, the words demand complete respect and get it. Is this a good thing, or is it a bad thing?

In his second internationally released feature TILAI, African director Idrissa Ouedraogo postulates a situation in which the law hangs on a technicality, in which egos and emotions sully the symmetry of a justice that has served its people well for centuries. In such a case, can exceptions be made? Like Yaaba, last year's offering from Ouedraogo, TILAI is essentially a moral tale, a fable exploring the whys and wherefores of tribal society.

Set in a small village in Ouedraogo's home country, Burkina Faso, it tells the story of Saga and Nogma, your archetypal star-crossed lovers. When Saga returns to his village after two year's absence, he finds that his fiancee, Nogma, has become his father's wife. The two secretly continue their liaison. When the village discovers the affair, it is regarded as incest, punishable by death. This is very sensible for any small genetics-respecting society with half an eye to survival. Except that Nogma is Saga's mother only in name. Nevertheless, the tilai makes no exceptions, so straws are drawn to see who is going to do away with Saga. Unfortunately, the dirty deed falls to his brother Kougri, who, when it comes to the crunch, lets Saga escape and covers up by torching his hut. Nogma runs away and joins him. But will they be dogged by the law?

The theme is timeless and of international relevance. The film is fearless in a manner that Hollywood with its laughable adoration of pseudo-moral, 12 Oscar nominated Dances with Wolves, cannot begin to get to grips with. For a start, it is astonishing that films get made in Africa at all. During its 30-year existence, the African film industry has produced only around 150 features. The problems, the legacies of cultural and material colonialism are predictable: no financial means and severe infrastructural limitations, especially in distribution. But at least the colonial connection has to some extent, an upside - no thanks to the British.

The most active and creative African countries in world cinema are those territories formerly occupied by France. In the years preceding independence in the sixties, France adopted interventionist political and cultural policies in its colonies, which includes Burkina Faso. The result is that aspiring African filmmakers have, by necessity, to embrace the French cultural tradition of film-making. So it is brave and single-minded that, coming from such a background, Ouedraogo - who studied film in Paris and has lived there since 1981 - and his colleagues still have the sheer discipline to remove themselves from that tradition and reinvent film in such a quintessentially and uniquely African way.

The subject matter, too, is brave. It would be easy for the West to write off the system explored in TILAI as primitive and barbaric. Unfortunately, then, it is a political risk to expose the vagaries of African tribal life in the 1990s to the overwhelmingly racist scrutiny of the West. In spite of this, no punches are pulled in Ouedraogo's lyrical rendition of a backward nation. The really striking thing is how first Saga, then Nogma, strike out across a dry, featureless plain and actually end up where they were headed. No roads, no paths. It seems so utterly alien to just walk over unscarred ground and consider it not recreation, but a journey. Those Romans and their roads, the cultural diversions represented by a dual carriageway.

Ouedraogo's characters, too, remain on a small scale. None is a hero. None is larger than life. Saga and Nogma are not offered to us as great lovers, carried away by passion. Saga is a large, lugubrious man, not much of an oil painting, relaxed, easy going, happy to let Nogma make the running. Nogma is a beauty, quiet but eager to dramatise herself, even if it simply means lying and telling unsavoury tales. The plot also eschews dramatic tension. It simply is: it starts, it unfolds, it finishes. It is admirable that Ouedraogo makes no excuses, pulls no cinematic tricks and instead uses film-making as a tool for the rigorous exploration of the fundamentals of his society.

He does use his French training well, and employs fully the technical expertise available from that country. The images in TILAI are constantly arresting, rendered by French cinematographers Jean Monsigny and Pierre Laurent Chenieux. The sound, too, is handled by French practitioners, though the music was composed and performed by the South African Abdullah Ibrahim - formerly known as Dollar Brand. TILAI represents an approach to film-making that in spite of its reliance on European input - the film is a co-production between Burkina Faso, Switzerland and France - is utterly unique and completely accessible. It stands unadorned as a beautiful and valuable film.
- Deborah Orr, New Statesman & Society, 22 February 1991

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