'The Revolution Won't Be Televised': Film Review

Courtesy of Boul Fallé Images
Incendiary material, handled with care.

Rama Thiaw's rap-flavored documentary on west African politics enjoyed a prize-winning premiere at the Berlinale.

Political and cultural crosscurrents collide in The Revolution Won't Be Televised, Rama Thiaw's rousing, rap-fueled dispatch from the west African state of Senegal. Winner of the international critics' Fipresci prize after bowing in the independent-oriented Forum section of the Berlinale, it's a structurally lopsided but boisterously engaging documentary with breakout appeal beyond the obvious nonfiction festivals and platforms.

Mauretania-born, France-raised Thiaw tackled similar subject matter in 2008 with her sole previous feature-length work, Boul Falle, which found relatively restricted international exposure. That picture traced the development of the eponymous movement which rose up following the controversial re-election of President Abdou Diouf in 1988 and which combined political activism with displays of Senegal's national sport, wrestling.

The Revolution Won't Be Televised deals — ironically enough — mainly with protests against Diouf's once-popular successor Abdoulaye Wade, who assumed the presidency in 2000. This time the emphasis is on musical rather than sporting resistance, as Thiaw chronicles the exploits of two charismatic rappers from the popular 'Keur Gui' outfit: Thiat and Kilifeu, plus their DJ, Gadiaga.

The revolution they seek may or may not (in Gil Scott-Heron's immortal phrase) be televised — Thiaw includes extracts from numerous tube-broadcasts — but it will most certainly be anticipated, described and glorified in their lyrics. Articulate and forceful, they "rage against injustice and fight with words," providing the most visible and vocal resistance to the powers-that-be.

Lightning rods for dissent among what is plainly a very youthful population, Keur Gui present themselves not as potential replacements for Wade's regime but as "outlaws" perennially wary of being co-opted by any specific party. The perfidy of softly spoken octogenarian Wade is taken for granted — he's compared with more internationally reviled African leaders such as Mobutu Sese Seko and Robert Mugabe at one stage — in an unambiguously partisan picture which takes an unquestioningly positive stance towards Keur Gui.

Thiaw has clearly established a relationship of mutual trust with her subjects, allowing her ease of access into their offstage and even domestic spaces. "Revolution," declaims Thiat, "isn't a speech, it's a way of life" — and the ongoing nature of the struggle is illustrated in the film's second 'chapter,' which begins less than 40 minutes before the credits. This follows Keur Gui across into Burkina Faso, where they bring their experience and energy to bear against incumbent President Compaore — the latest example of the entrenched leadership which has so bedeviled Africa in the post-colonial era.

But there's no attempt, either by Keur Gui or Thiaw, to dig deeper into the structural problems which keep throwing up such deformations of democracy. Nor is it made clear how elections actually operate in Senegal. The emphasis is rather on capturing the sensations of the moment, as summed up in the series of obviously mocked-up newspaper front pages ("A Revolution Led by Rappers" blares one ersatz headline) which periodically punctuate the narrative.

Thiaw can be a little too fond of using flashy visual gimmicks to spice up what's already a heady brew: key players get onscreen name-stamps, Hollywood-style, and in the latter stages multiscreening is occasionally deployed to questionable effect. Such stylistic flourishes — not to mention snatches of dispiritingly conventional piano scoring — are especially superfluous given the sheer visceral charge of the material on show here, and the commanding intensity of Keur Gui in full firebrand flow.

Crucial modulation is provided by three appearances from Khady Sylla, the poet, novelist and cineaste from Senegal's capital Dakar who died aged 50 in 2013 while the production was in its latter stages. A compelling, mature, female voice speaking quietly and movingly from the shadows, Sylla is in many ways the presiding and guiding spirit of The Revolution Won't Be Televised — she refers to Thiat as her "son" at one point, though it's not clear whether their relationship was a family one.

Sylla was dubbed the "magicienne du cinema" in Francophone obituaries, but remained underappreciated outside her native west Africa — even in cinephile circles. Berlinale reactions to Thiaw's sophomore outing suggest that Sylla's protege may well escape such injustice, and make room for her valuable voice on the international stage.


Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Production company: Boul Falle Images
Director-screenwriter-producer: Rama Thiaw

Cinematographer: Amath Niane
Editors: Axel Salvatori-Sinz, Rama Thiaw
Music: Keur Gui
Sales: Boul Falle Images, Dakar, Senegal

Not rated, 110 minutes