When a young French ruffian is sent back to his father’s native land of Burkina Faso, he learns how to cope with life on the other side of the Mediterranean in Wallay, a documentary-style feature that uses its unique setting to drive an otherwise minimalist coming-of-age story.
Starring a cast of relative unknowns, this sophomore effort from director Berni Goldblatt (The Hillside Crowd) is the kind of movie that gets by more on atmosphere than on plot. At the same time, newcomer Matkan Nathan Diarra holds his own in the lead role, offering up a touching portrait of one obnoxious Western teen coming face-to-face with his humble African origins. After premiering in Berlin’s Generation section, Wallay received a small release in France and should garner more attention, primarily from youth-oriented festivals.
After an opening flash-forward, we follow 13-year-old Ady (Diarra) causing a small ruckus in his French banlieue, leaving his desperate dad with few options but to ship him out of town. Arriving in Burkina Faso to stay in the remote village of his authoritarian uncle Amadou (Hamadoun Kassougue), Ady believes he’s only visiting for a week, but soon learns that he’s stuck on permanent vacation until he reimburses money he stole from his father.
Like most kids his age, all Ady cares about is his telephone, his Beats by Dre-style headphones and whatever music (in this case, French rap) he’s into at the moment. But those creature comforts can only take him so far in a place with limited electricity and means of communication, especially after his uncle confiscates his passport and Ady is forced to live the hard-knock life that everyone in his Burkinabe family is already used to.
Working from a script by David Bouchet, Golblat — who is of Swiss-Burkinabe origin and has a background in documentaries — initially shows Ady reacting with an expected mix of rebellion and disbelief to his sudden change of living conditions. But the kid gradually opens up to a new world and a new way of being, with his cousin, Jean (Ibrhaim Koma, who starred in the Malian crime film Wulu) and his grandmother, Mame (Josephine Kabore), showing him more love and affection than he ever seemed to get back home in France.
Such tenderness has more of an effect on Ady than the harsh teachings of Amadou, who, in the film’s only major twist, tries to force, and then trick, his nephew into getting circumcised in order to “make him a man.” Goldblat’s handling of that plot point is a little shaky, as is the way he resolves it, but the director does manage to realistically capture Ady’s transformation as he becomes immersed in an entirely different lifestyle — one where materialistic concerns seem altogether less important than the family unit.
Shot in a naturalistic manner by Martin Rit, with many of the night scenes filmed in low-light conditions, Wallay plunges us into the sights and sounds that Ady experiences as he learns to embrace his forgotten roots. We see nearly everything from his viewpoint, with Diarra doing a terrific job portraying an unruly little punk who finds himself transformed by a place he never quite knew the existence of, at least on such an intimate level. Music by French cellist-bassist Vincent Segal is mixed in with local Burkinabe tracks to further the film’s blend of African and European sensibilities.
Production company: bathysphere
Cast: Makan Nathan Diarra, Ibrahim Koma, Hamadoun Kassogue, Josephine Kabore, Mounira Kankole
Director: Berni Goldblat
Screenwriter: David Bouchet
Producer: Nicolas Anthome
Director of photography: Martin Rit
Production designers: Papa Kouyate, Karim Lagati
Costume designer: Huguette Goudjo
Editor: Laurent Senechal
Composer: Vincent Segal
Casting directors: Lan Hong Xuan, Georgette Pare
In French, Dioula