With its poetic flourishes and nearly surrealistic settings, Adanggaman, a tale of the African slave trade directed by Roger Gnoan M’Bala, at times proceeds more like a very grim fairy tale than a historical drama. Set in the Ivory Coast in the late-17th century, it seems to be taking place in some timeless zone of primeval forests and sun-baked veldts, the sort of nature-ruled land where humans are never quite rooted and can never quite rule.
But the beautiful setting is deceptive and the story is no fairy tale. It begins with a headstrong young tribesman named Ossei (Ziable Honore Goore Bi), a chieftain’s son who has refused to marry his intended, having fallen for a lower-class woman. His father has him beaten and, one night while Ossei is wandering in a sulk, his village is attacked and nearly everyone slaughtered except those young men who can be sold as slaves. The attackers are led by a group of Amazons who are working for the evil King Adanggaman, whose wealth is based on selling fellow countrymen to other tribes and to white men who take them abroad.
Strangeness abounds. The Amazons are actually rather diminutive young women with painted faces and bright orange outfits — when they go for the kill, it’s like watching someone being attacked by rabid gazelles. Adanggaman’s power to suppress and conquer seems to rely entirely on the loyalty of these vicious sprites, he himself being fat and buffoonish or, as Ossei’s mother impolitically calls him to his face, “an insatiable pig.”
The film doesn’t flinch from the brutality of its subject, but it does go into unexpected directions and enter into contrasting moods, including one stretch of idyllic romance. It’s an odd mix of harsh history and once-upon–a-time storytelling, both beguiling and unsettling.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), 7:30 p.m. on Monday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].