Beauty and Monsters: ‘Saloum’ and the Terror of Silence at TIFF ’21

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Festiville editor Mitchell Beaupre gets on the line with director Jean Luc Herbulot for a chat about mushrooms, Westerns, and the first West African film to play in TIFF’s Midnight Madness program. 

Making its way to the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, Saloum marks the first West African film to play in the fest’s Midnight Madness section, a program opened this year by Palme d’Or winner Titane. That’s not the only first for Saloum. It is also the first feature from LACMÉ Studios, a company director Jean Luc Herbulot “recreated” with his producing partner, Pamela Diop. 

The idea for Saloum, which has been described by Midnight Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky as “From Dusk Till Dawn in West Africa”, formulated when the two of them went on a weekend trip to the Saloum region of Senegal in 2018. It was there that they wrote the short story “The Twilight of the Hyenas”, which Diop describes as “an African western... a horror film... a fantastic epic... an ode to the imaginary world in which we would like to stay and a furious artistic deliverance rather than a desire to fill an empty box.” 

If that sounds difficult to pin down, it’s for good reason. The synopsis for Saloum will tell you that it’s about a trio of on-the-run mercenaries, named Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah), and Midnight (Mentor Ba), who crash land their getaway plane in a remote area of Senegal where “dark ancestral forces unleash hell on them all”. The film pulls influences ranging from Sergio Leone Westerns and Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films to Jean-Pierre Melville’s noirs and the Korean New Wave. 

This all gets put into a blend, alongside the cultural specificity of the region itself, and out comes a unique vision from a filmmaker who has carved his own path from the time he was young. With no film school degree to his name, director Herbulot describes himself as a “hostage of creativity” who simply needs outlets to express his artistry to the world. Those outlets have taken the form of drawing, writing, programming video games, directing music videos, and so much more, leading to now, where his series Sakho & Mangane is on Netflix, and his feature Saloum will make its premiere at one of the highest profile film festivals in the industry.

Ahead of the screening, we spoke with Herbulot about the genesis of Saloum, growing up as a kid in Congo watching Miami Vice, and how he sought to forge something original out of his vast array of influences. 

Letterboxd: Hi, Jean Luc, it’s great to meet you. 

Jean Luc Herbulot: Hello, Mitchell. How do you say your last name, is it Bo-pray? 

Exactly, yeah. It’s French-Canadian. 

Ah, look at this French guy! 

Your film, Saloum, is making its world premiere at TIFF this year. How did it feel when you first got the word that you’d been approved for the festival? 

Well, the version that they accepted was a rough cut without special effects, and without sound. So, we were quite surprised. At the same time, our goal was to do something unique, something that we didn’t see in the continent. So, very surprised, but of course fucking happy. 

Do you find the Midnight Madness section an appropriate fit for the film? 

Oh, man. That, I don’t know. I’ve always known about the Toronto Festival, but I didn’t know that there were sections of it. I discovered that when we were selected, and started looking at the group and seeing we were up there with Titane and films like that. Especially knowing that we are the first West African film in that section, that was great. We’re also very curious to see how it plays, because that’s going to be the first time that an audience will be seeing the movie, and also a Canadian audience seeing a West African movie. It’ll be a new experience for us, as well as a new experience for the audience. 

That feels appropriate, as the film is drawing influence from a variety of different places, whether Western elements or cultural touches from its own region. Could you talk about taking those ideas and fusing them into a new, unique experience? 

Pamela and I, we created LACMÉ, or recreated it, as it was already existing. After that, it became more of a studio for making movies. When we did that, we started thinking about what our first feature was going to be. Going to that weekend in the Saloum and being creative, doing brainstorms and stuff like that, From Dusk Till Dawn kept coming back to me. I loved that narrative, and how you twist it around. For me, it was the same thing as with I Saw the Devil, the Korean film from Kim Jee-woon. I love the fact that you’re watching, and you think you know what kind of movie it is. Then, at the end of the first act you find the bad guy, and you’re like, “What is happening here?” You get it going for those first 40 minutes, and then we’re going to do something totally different. Those were the main influences that we wanted for this movie, ones that had that sharp twisting. 

After that, it became a challenge for me to not be influenced, and to try and do something that was different from everything. Even when it came to the marketing, we were thinking about what kind of movie this is. We realized that you’ve got Westerns, and this is down in the south, so why not call it a Southern? That’s something new. That’s how everything happened. We were working with people who were passionate and wanted to do something unique. For LACMÉ, our main fight is to inspire people, and especially to inspire the kids that we were. We didn’t grow up with these kinds of movies. I wish I could be seven or eight right now, and watch this movie and say, “Oh yes, I want to be Chaka”, or “I want to be Midnight”, or “I want to be Rafa”. It was all about creating these great, cool characters, and at the same time grounding them in reality. We wanted to incorporate that geopolitical environment that you see in the movie, and create this mix between something intellectual, and just a real fun time, and also something that is absolutely evil. 

Early in the film, there’s a line which states, “Revenge is like a river whose bottom is reached only when we drown.” What was the motivation for opening with that line, and how does it reverberate throughout the film? 

That’s something somebody said to me when I was in Africa, so I’m not the author of it. I took it from somebody who told me that when I was younger because it stayed in my mind. There are always these big phrases about vengeance, and “don’t do vengeance because blah blah blah”, but I found it interesting in the context of the Saloum, as it’s surrounded by high lands and it’s surrounded by water.

I hope I’m not offending anybody when I say this, but it’s a place where you can find a lot of people that are hiding from justice. It’s a big region where you can hide very easily. Mentally, I was trying to imagine all this water out there, and how that can be scary, so that’s where Chaka’s psychology came from. Most people were questioning the legitimacy of somebody being afraid of water, and so I made it a challenge to show that you can be afraid of water. 

It definitely made me afraid of going into water ever again. 

Yeah, there are some places in the Saloum that I can tell you, I will not go back to them. It all really came from that, and then telling the journey of Chaka and how things are not going to end up great for him. 

Along with the central trio, I found one of the more interesting characters to be Awa, a deaf-mute woman they run into in the camp, who was played by Evelyne Ily Juhen. The idea of hearing comes into play heavily in the film, particularly in the second act. Where did that desire to focus on that sense of hearing come from? 

It came from a spirit of contradiction. I was a big student of movies in general, and especially genre movies. I’ve always been asking myself what hasn’t been done before. These last few years, I fell in love with A Quiet Place, and then the second one as well. There was also Bird Box in there somewhere, which is about not seeing or else you die, and A Quiet Place is not making a noise or that’s the way you die. I was thinking of what the next step of that would be, and came up with not hearing or else you’re going to die. 

I wanted to work against my own cliches, and to not do what has been before, but at the same time studying that much to know what we can bring new to the plate. That’s why most of the time when people ask me about the references for the movie, I actually end up talking about how I spent time trying to not think about those influences and raise them too much. But of course, I grew up with things like From Dusk Till Dawn and these movies, so your subconscious is always putting a lot of stuff on the screen that you don’t control. 

You’ve mentioned before growing up in Congo, and having a lack of African heroes in film, which was part of why you wanted to create these characters. What did you want to stand out about the three of them for audiences to see? 

I did a TV series for Canal Plus before Saloum, which was a cop show called Sakho & Mangane, so a bit like Miami Vice, and all of that. When I was a young kid in the ‘80s, I was a big fan of that show, and Starsky & Hutch, and all those kinds of TV series. So, I said to myself that I wanted to be seven right now, eight right now, and see that TV series. And, if I wanted to see it, there was a particular way that I wanted to be seeing it. 

Meaning that I don’t want to see again that we are in Africa, and everything is yellow and orange. There’s a war going on, and this guy wants to cure his mother, but he needs to go to the city to fight whatever, and then he will get fucked by the immigrants, blah blah. We saw so much of that in Africa, and we would think that’s just part of living in Africa. What the fuck is that? This isn’t just that, you know?

My main goal has always been to inspire the kid that I was, and at the same time to sit as the adult that I am right now, and make something so real that adults love it as well. 

You mentioned earlier about the weekend trip that you and Pamela Diop, your producer, went on to Saloum. Could you tell me more about how that trip helped shape the ideas you wanted to bring out in the film?

Yeah, we took free mushrooms, and it was really fucking great. That’s what you want to hear, right? But, apart from that, I had never been in a region like that. It was at the same time beautiful and fucking scary. It was so quiet. You have no idea. No sound at all. We couldn’t even reproduce that in the movie, the quietness, because there was nothing. 

When I was saying that to the guys in the sound mix, they wanted to keep putting stuff back in to amp it up, but I kept saying that we needed nothing, which we didn’t fully succeed in. Saloum is like that, where it’s weird and freaky, and yet still fucking beautiful. That’s the, I don’t want to say trap, but that’s the trap I wanted to put Chaka and the audience in where you see the Saloum, and it’s blue and green, and the desert is great and beautiful, but then the more you approach the water, the more the problems rise up. Then you will understand what’s really going on. It was playing with this beauty and these monsters. 

‘Saloum’ is playing in TIFF’s Midnight Madness program. Follow TIFF on Letterboxd