An African cinematic love poem to those forcibly dragged off into bondage, Adanggaman at the same time isn’t reticent about cultural self-criticism of countrymen who assisted in the mass suffering, and economically benefited from it. Directed by Ivory Coast-born filmmaker Roger Gnoan M’Bala, who wrote the screenplay with Jean-Marie Adlaffi and Bertin Akaffou, this mix of historical imagination and solemn truth is also imprinted very much with the present chaos and civil strife in Africa, even if the ways in which white colonialists have opportunistically incited and perpetuated that disorder, is not accounted for. Though the message conveyed to African audiences may perhaps be more in the nature of a call for vigilance and courageous defense against outside forces.
Framed lyrically and poetically as an excursion into a deceptively idyllic 17th century African past, the film is laden with prophetic ironies that foretell an already tragically familiar doomed future. Ossei (Ziable Honore Goore Bi) is a young hunter and son of the chief of a Panther tribe. He’s dishonored his father by falling in love with a female slave and refusing an arranged marriage. This revelation that a strict class-segregated caste system rejecting notions of free will was already in place in Africa prior to the arrival of the Europeans with their own brand of class hierarchy and oppression, is disturbing, while lending a new perspective as to how the invading white slave hunters were not quite so incomprehensible to those already engaged in trading human beings.
After being beaten and ostracized for his disobedience to the tribe, Ossei departs from his village. His defiant cry that ‘I am not a slave, I am as free as my heart,’ resonates across the wilderness. Returning later, he discovers that the village has been incinerated by a hostile tribe ruled by the tyrannical chieftain Adanggaman, who is cruel and depraved, and drunk on both power and European rum. And that everyone has either been slaughtered or marched off in chains and stocks, to be sold to Dutch traders. Ossei himself is soon captured, tortured and held in captivity inside a fishing net.
The warriors who seize and terrorize these victims are astonishingly all vicious young women with identical white face paint masks, orange robes and spears, a kind of African version of Amazons. One of the females is oddly drawn to Ossei, likely impressed with his defiance and resistance to his captors, and his brave defense of his own mother who is among the slaves. She later frees Ossei and falls in love with him, revealing how she herself was kidnapped as a seven year old and forced to train as a fighter with the other females. The analogy to today’s child soldiers is both shocking and heartbreaking. Even as a pall is cast over the continent as a prophesy is spoken that ‘the whip will reign for a long time,’ and the people will experience an immense suffering that none other has ever known.
The scenes of these captured and enslaved human beings, paralyzed by confused rage, communicating with one another through mournful song, and sleeping at night in the field as they sit in the pouring rain, are unforgettable images, uniquely crafted from the African point of view and never quite shaped with such raw intensity in any American film thus far, even without a single European on hand to convey the essence of the horror in its entirety. The vibrant yet delicate soundtrack that weaves its way through the narrative establishes the bitter emotional reality of that historical moment and its slave laments, which intimate the roots of that passionate musical sensibility later to be immortalized in American gospel and soul.
In an epilogue that cuts nearly as deeply as the story, it is reported that Adanggaman, after ruthlessly auctioning off so many of his countrymen for guns and rum, has himself been carted away across the Atlantic, where he was renamed Walter Brown and toiled as a cook in St Louis until he succumbed to tuberculosis. And Ossei became John Standford, and was sold to a rich plantation owner, where he met a female slave who bore him five children. As for Ossei’s youthful struggle against his parents to be a free man, well he never regained that status again.
M’Bala reaches through time and space across the planet with enormous tenderness and devotion, to dedicate Adanggaman to “All the Africans who suffered the iron collars and chains of slavery. And to the children and grandchildren who bear their scars.” With Adanggaman, the two continents have never seemed quite so intertwined.
Adanggaman is available from New Yorker Video. Unrated. More information is at: NewYorkerfilms.com.
In Bambara, Baloue and French with English subtitles.
DVD Features: Historical Viewpoint from John Jay College Professor Fritz Umbach; Scene Selections; Study Guide Booklet.