‘Our House’ ('O Ka'): Cannes Review

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A delicate but impassioned docudrama about today’s Mali.

A personal story about miscarried justice becomes the symbol for Mali’s larger struggle to make truth prevail.

One of Africa’s premier filmmakers, Souleymane Cisse uses the personal drama of the ousting of his four aged sisters from their family home to show Mali’s ills in miniature in Our House (O Ka). The delicacy and refinement of the director’s masterpieces — The Wind and Brightness are refrained here as a counterpoint to an ugly tale of miscarried justice. Though its bow out of competition in Cannes will give it visibility, an overly rhetorical conclusion takes the high-blown sentiments created in the first part of the film down a notch, and a certain amount of repetition positions it primarily for festivals and Africa-watchers.

The film has much to say about the horrific rise of Islamic militancy in northern Mali, but Our House couches its condemnation of barbarism in far more guarded terms than did Timbuktu, the fine fiction film directed by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako that played in Cannes competition last year to critical acclaim but failed to win a major prize. Cisse is a poet who prefers metaphor over straight drama, but the two films do have similar preoccupations. In case someone doesn’t get the message, the narrator says: “If you think this is all about a property dispute, you haven’t understood anything.”

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Using his own sisters who are in their 70s and 80s as actresses, Cisse centers the film on a re-creation of actual 2008 events that led to them being kicked out of their dark adobe home in the middle of the bustling Bozola market. After forging ownership papers and bribing a judge, members of the Diakite family laid claim to the property, which had been in the Cisses' possession for almost 80 years. As the ancestral home of their father, it had a special claim on the ladies’ hearts, so they didn't take the thing lying down. After they were forcibly evicted by the police, they staged a permanent sit-in in front of the building and eventually won the solidarity of the community, the press, the minister of justice and even a prime minister.

As they tell and retell their story in repetitive detail, the film has a moment of wheel-spinning, until Cisse’s own impassioned monologue links this personal injustice to the broader disturbances in the country: war and intolerance. Though it’s clear the Cisse family is engaged in a battle for truth to regain both their house and their credibility, it seems reductive to call Mali’s long-standing ethnic and religious conflict a “fight for truth.” But audiences will get behind Cisse when he condemns the stupidity and hatred of the warmongers and demands a future for the country’s children.

The film has a strong sensuality and physicality in images of nature, plants, animals and toddlers. In other scenes, viewers swim in the noisy, colorful streets of Bozola outside the capital city of Bamako. A multitude of editors and directors of photography may help explain how uneven the film looks in its different parts. One of the credited editors is the recently deceased Andree Davanture, to whom the film is dedicated.

Production company: Les Films Cisse
Cast: Magnini Koroba Cisse, Aminata Cisse, Badjeneba Cisse, M’ba Cisse
Director, screenwriter, producer: Souleymane Cisse
Directors of photography: Xavier Arias, Fabien Lamotte, Thomas Robin, Hamady Diallo
Editors: Andree Davanture, Youssouf Cisse, Marie-Christine Rougerie, Clemence Diard
Patou Films International
No rating, 96 minutes