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Sick of his dead-end job, an ambitious 20-year-old bus driver from Mali manages to become a successful drug runner instead in Wulu, the feature debut from Marseille-born French-Malian director Daouda Coulibaly. As much a cautionary tale with a familiar rise-and-fall structure — a West-African Scarface, if you will — as it is a drama grounded in reality, this modest but well-executed crowdpleaser will likely travel far and wide after its Angouleme and Toronto premieres.
Ladji (Ibrahim Koma, impressive) has been a prantiké (a driver of vans used for transporting passengers) for five years but the kind-hearted youngster’s goal — earn enough money so that his older sister (singer Inna Modja, good) can stop prostituting herself — still feels as far away as the day he started. Knowing a thing or two about transport, he decides to call in a favor from a drug dealer he knows and change jobs. But already on his first run, transporting cannabis and then coke to and from Senegal in a truck that contains meat and then fish, things don’t go as planned. Luckily, Ladji is a smart young man and the fact he manages to save the day impresses not his boss — who, upon his return, he finds brutally murdered — but the boss of his boss (Olivier Rabourdin).
It’s through details such as these that Coulibaly, who also wrote the script, suggests he knows what the demands of the genre are but that he also likes to stay one step ahead of the audience where possible while clever storytelling and cutting quickly alternates enormous highs and lows. The surprise and mounting tension of the unexpected stop at the border, for example, is followed by the euphoria of having outsmarted the authorities. But sandwiched between the joy over this victory and the excitement over meeting the big boss lies a gruesome killing that not only modulates the sequence’s rhythm and tone but also suggests something of the brutality of the milieu and possibly foreshadows things to come.
For the higher-ups, Ladji and his buddies-cum-associates (Ismael N’Diaye, Jean-Marie Traoré) become assets they can use in ever more complex and dangerous drug-running operations. When they’re asked to drive to Timbuktu in jeeps, right into territory controlled by Al-Qaeda, it has become impossible for the protagonist to say “no,” though clearly this can’t end well.
This shadow of impending doom hangs over the entire trip and is cleverly used by the director to not only increase the already frequently feverish tension but also to explore and comment on local political realities. In fact, the film is set in the run-up to the 2012 Mali Civil War, in which the Tuaregs and Islamists battled it out for control of Northern Mali, a struggle that was further complicated by a military coup and the collapse of the government at the national level. Though Ladji’s only a drug runner, his get-rich-quick dreams, which predictably spiral out of control, can thus be read as a cautionary piece of advice for the country’s rebels who also hope to unselfishly better the lives of those around them but who, in their efforts to do so, might be finding themselves tapping into forces they can’t control.
The beauty of Wulu is that even without any knowledge of the political situation in Mali, the film also works as a straightforward rollercoaster genre ride. This is due not only to its screenplay, editing and direction but also because Paris-born actor Ibrahim Koma, acting in Bambara and French, makes Ladji such a likeable and optimistic protagonist, so audiences will be rooting for him even though he’s clearly making a lot of wrong decisions for the right reasons. The film’s foretold but very understated ending, which keeps a key moment offscreen to devastating effect, again confirms that Coulibaly is a talent to watch.
Production companies: La Chauve-Souris, Astou Films, Orange Studio, Appaloosa Films
Cast: Ibrahim Koma, Inna Modja, Ismael N’Diaye, Jean-Marie Traoré, Habib Dembelé, Marianne N’Diaye, Quim Gutierrez, Olivier Rabourdin
Writer-Director: Daouda Coulibaly
Producers: Eric Nevé, Oumar Sy
Director of photography: Pierre Milon
Production designer: Papa Mahamoudou Kouyaté
Costume designer: Mariam Coulibaly
Editor: Julien Leloup
Casting: Mathilde Snodgrass
Sales: Indie Sales
No rating, 95 minutes
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