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Sia, The Myth Of The Python (2001)
Writer and director: Dani Kouyate

review by Amy Harlib

A highlight of 2001's New York African Diaspora Film Festival was the latest production scripted and helmed by Burkina Faso's Dani Kouyate whose masterful Keita! Voice Of The Griot (1994) established his skill at bringing West African history, culture and tradition to life on the screen. This feature, of so excellent a quality, became an 'instant classic' and has been shown at each African Diaspora Film festival since, including this year of 2004.

Sia, The Myth Of The Python (aka: Sia, Le Réve du Python; Sia, The Python's Dream), a political allegory based on a story by Moussa Dingana is set in an intentionally vague pre-Colonial, pre-industrial, Iron Age era, and starts off with a Jean Cocteau quote that aptly establishes that we're in a realm of fable transcending specific time and space but with timeless, eternal relevance. This may sound arty and pretentious but not so - the result best fits the description: hugely entertaining with substance.

Dazzling settings, scenery, costumes, compelling characters and gorgeous music immediately captivates the viewer, drawing them into the tale of the poverty-stricken city of Kombi, exploited by the ruling Emperor (Kardigue Laico Traore). Kombi's priests, in an attempt to restore prosperity, wish to make the traditional human sacrifice to the Python God, a rite which requires that the most beautiful maiden be offered up in a ceremony in which the majority of the people (except the elites), no longer believe. Lovely, young strong-willed Sia (Fatoumata Diawara), high-born daughter of politically powerless parents, gets chosen for the dubious sacrificial honour, news which causes much resentment among the populace, especially the local females who despair at such a superstitious waste of innocent life.

One male particularly outspoken on the behalf of the dissenters, Kerfa (Habib Dembele), a grizzled, elderly but spry, reputedly crazy hermit-seer, defies both the priests and their supportive emperor, a boldness made possible by his 'untouchable', court-jester-like status. This lovable, albeit dead-cat-eating (when you're living off the land, you'll consume anything) eccentric secretly harbours Sia, when she flees in a desperate attempt to escape the unwelcome fatal ritual. Kerfa, even while hiding Sia in his humble, isolated abode, gets the wittiest, most memorable lines, especially when brought before the emperor who covets his dreams. The ruling militia's abuse of the citizens while searching for the fugitive heroine, stirs up rebellious sentiments amongst most of them, most notably Mamadi (Ibrahim Baba Cisse), a brave, handsome, youthful military officer who, from his distant post in 'the front', races to save his fianc´┐Że, none other than Sia herself.

Swiftly, suspensefully building to a rousing climax, the plot serves up rich subtexts of universally applicable religious, political and social critique, subtly progressing from the humorous satire of the opening sequences to the wrenching denouements at the end. When the Python God's fraudulent nature gets revealed - few characters remain unaffected, some tragically so. Still, the ending satisfies, (recalling that of La Nuit de Varennes), bridging the gulf from the mythical past to contemporary times and leaving the viewer to ponder the nature of political power and how it influences relationships and beliefs.

Sia, The Myth Of The Python, unfolds rich with stunning visuals and even poetic moments (interludes of children repeatedly trying to fly a kite; the crucial scene depicting Kerfa's face-to-face confrontation with the emperor; Sia getting ritually prepared for the sacrifice, for example). The film also offers vivid performances, colourful costumes (some to die for!), superb cinematography by Robert Millie, and a gorgeous score by Daniel Rousseau and Fontani Toure that blends modern synthesizer effects with traditional instrumentation to perfect complementary effect. For a provocative vision of a deep African cultural heritage embodied in beautiful, complex people, this movie represents a dream come true, to be sought after wherever and whenever it happens to be screened.
Sia, Myth of the Python

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