A World Created in Impressionistic Strokes: ‘The Divine River; Ceremonial Pageantry in the Sahel’

We open to a shot of a young African boy navigating a narrow, wooden boat through the Niger river. He sports an unbuttoned, flowing collared shirt with Saddam Hussein’s image screen printed on the back. The Divine River; Ceremonial Pageantry in the Sahel consists solely of images and music. It creates a world in impressionistic strokes. Narrative is eschewed. It’s a documentary only in the loosest sense. There are no words to guide the viewer towards any semblance of traditional understanding. At times, this viewer felt like he was watching home movies made with a video camera that had fallen from the sky.

The Niger river is host to many enchanting ceremonies that the camera provides a voyeuristic perspective on. Nigerian men sing together in what are called Wodabe trance vocal performances. While traditional, they have a punk tincture. They harmonize with the land. Lonely cows roam amongst the men, ribcages vivid, with mutant humps.

The film then cuts to a sequence of stationary shots of adobe dwellings. This section, like other brief moments spliced in, are filmed on a high resolution digital camera. These departures are jarring. The houses are painted in black and white, resembling rows of jagged teeth. Beautiful woven huts look like officers helmets from the World War I. The camera pans out to chalky pastel paintings, so geometric they call to mind fractals.

Then there is dancing in a very cramped space; dust being kicked up all around. The leaders work the crowd into a frenzy, chanting at the dancers and then at certain spectators in particular. He calls them to dance, too. This is a Wogo mock possession hoedown. There is no bravado or narcissistic posturing in the performers. They are caught in the music. The meaning or purpose behind this dance is never even hinted at. I suppose the filmmaker would find that kind of explanation to be beside the point and my insistence upon it entirely misguided. In this film though, the directorial silence feels less intentional than amateur. Compounding this feeling is the hodge podge aesthetic that is effected through using starkly different cameras, both film and digital.

Children dance with adults. The movement of the young seems an emergence of spiritual forces focused in a body stomping and shaking. The spirit guides the children through the cosmos. The dancing straddles the line between violence and sensuality. Dexterity beams through these children, making the viewer believe they have been possessed by the spirit. They are always slightly veiled behind a smoky firmament.

The camera presents more and more tantalizing but enigmatic scenes of different groups singing and dancing along the river. All around the desert is drenched in blinding, divine sunlight. Pastels shrouded in light and dust like smoke. Some men have their faces painted in deep purple with bright yellow stripes. They undulate, moving their straight arms up and down like invokers. They are painted in lipstick, making them look feminine. One would not be surprised if they turned out to have been possessed.

There is a lone man playing a Contigiin the desert. It sounds like a saw or a theremin wrung through with Islamic blues. His instrument is formed in shapes both organic and astral. He wears sunglasses and a western suit with one sleeve off the shoulder and no shoes. Hypnotic, wandering sounds are plucked from from his Contigi.The sounds feel like an answer to the Koan about one hand clapping. God is in this shapeless desert. He has imbued the people with a peace that is expressed in their calm self-assuredness.

A long shot of an antiquated boom box with the phrase “X-Bass” emblazoned on its speaker gestures at a cosmopolitan world that is contiguous to the river. Thumping dance bass animates traditional African strings. In a sea of cassette tapes, the camera pans up to a familiar label: “Akon”, handwritten on the side of a cassette box.

Trailing the shot of the cassettes is a jarring cut to an irrigation trench pooled with viscous blood. The camera pans up to a shot of slaughtered lambs lying to the side of the ditch. The music goes on. The camera tracks racks of pink, skinned animals, hung up and splayed. To watch the men jab deftly at the bodies skinning them in a stroke is to see the simplicity of the relationship between death and corporeality. Gray sacks of organs fall and swing like pendulums. Blood pools on concrete like black glass.

The final sequence is a Dogon mask ritual set to sinister drum beats. The masks cover the entirety of the dancers’ faces. They form a line of intimidating, mystical power. Suddenly they burst into movement. Purple and green ropes shake in waves from their hips as they leap in the air. Their cries echo in the arid distance. Some masks are topped with towering poles reaching up to the heavens. Their dancing has elements of fighting. It is reminiscent of capoeira. This scene is grainy, as if it were shot on a home movie camera.

If this review has seemed overly flowery and not expository, I submit that this is at least in part a reflection of the nature of the film. It’s a film about feeling and harmonizing with a place in the world. The director makes no attempt to help the viewer understand what is on the screen. The film is only 45 minutes long and it is a bewildering three quarters of an hour.

RATING 4 / 10