[…] At first glance the film is an epic clash between radicalism and moderation, between conservatives and liberals, but the human tragedy at the centre lends «Baamum Nafi» a heft that impresses with its power.
[…] «Baamum Nafi» has its fair share of action scenes but these aren’t where Dia’s strengths as a director lie. He is clearly deeply fascinated by stillness and the quiet moments that follow human eruptions: the closeups, involving camera work by Sheldon Chau, present images and scenes that give the film a glossy yet gritty realism.
Seduction in a small town: Love, family and religion
In the traditional northern Senegalese small town where Baamum Nafi (Nafi’s Father) is set, family ties are everything. In Mamadou Dia’s arresting feature length debut, cousins marry cousins and elderly parents mediate in disputes between adult children…. or at least they attempt to.
The titular character is played by actor Alassane Sy (Restless City, Fallou.) By virtue of being the local Imam, Tierno aka Baamum Nafi is the lifeblood of the town’s social and spiritual existence. Always available to take charge whenever there is a birth to be celebrated, a misunderstanding to settle or a rite of passage to perform, his presence is one of those dependable, sturdy ones that eventually come to be taken for granted.
Tierno quietly broods about this. He knows that he cannot be everything to everybody, but he tries to be present for his sensible wife and fast-growing adolescent daughter, Nafi. Even though Tierno espouses progressive views, often at odds with his position as a Sufi cleric, he often feels like the world is passing by too swiftly. Nafi acts as Tierno’s anchor during turbulent days like these, but even she cannot wait to fly the coop. Her cousin and childhood sweetheart, Tokara, has asked for her hand in marriage. It seems like a sensible match but Baamum Nafi, whom the whole town calls Tierno because no one can remember his real name, has his reservations. His brother, Alhaji Ousmane (Saikou Lô), who in his excitement has promised to sponsor the wedding, has strong political ambitions – and a mean streak – and Tierno fears that a marriage contract will give credibility to Ousmane’s radical religious beliefs.
Intimate and minutely observed, yet epic and ambitious in scope, Baamum Nafi, the surprise winner of the Golden Leopard in the Cinema of the Present competition as well as the Swatch First Feature award at the 72nd Locarno Film Festival, is the story of a small town: the sights, the sounds, the people and their stories. At first glance the film is an epic clash between radicalism and moderation, between conservatives and liberals, but the human tragedy at the centre lends Baamum Nafi a heft that impresses with its power. Tierno is a rounded and intriguing character, not only because Sy is particularly convincing as an actor, but because Dia’s screenplay is terrific, peeling back layer after layer of rich subtext, even with the supporting roles. Nursing a chronic illness, Tierno has been forced – or privileged – to come face to face with his mortality. He takes his position as defender of the town’s values very seriously and is the kind of person to gladly lay down his life for the good of the people he believes in. However, Tierno slowly comes to realize that his compatriots do not necessarily appreciate all of his efforts. For someone who believes wholeheartedly in sacrificing himself for the common good, Tierno has a hard time accepting the flakiness of the world.
Baamum Nafi has its fair share of action scenes but these aren’t where Dia’s strengths as a director lie. He is clearly deeply fascinated by stillness and the quiet moments that follow human eruptions: the closeups, involving camera work by Sheldon Chau (Nigerian Prince), present images and scenes that give Baamum Nafi a glossy yet gritty realism.
Religious extremism might still be far from Senegal, but neighbouring countries like Nigeria and Mali have been caught up in its throes for years now. In this regard, Baamum Nafi plays like a wakeup call, a reminder of the fact that extreme ideologies and populism thrive because people welcome them in, convinced of the legitimacy of their feelings. Dia’s film isn’t just a j’accuse; it also points out how communities can push back on uncomfortable ideas before they can blossom. There are no quick fixes naturally, but decent leadership, education and the ability to decipher right from wrong are some of Baamum Nafi’s submissions. There are a number of conflicts in Baamum Nafi, but the most explosive is the one at the centre, between the brothers Tierno and Ousmane. Building up from the first scene of tension in the film to a final act that lays bare all of their internalized resentment for the other, Dia’s screenplay tests the bond of brotherhood and reveals how seemingly small decisions tend to have far reaching effects. The family is the building block of the community, therefore Dia’s decision to focus on the family as gatekeeper for society’s mores is a sensible one. The film eventually takes some dark turns and, even though the ties that bind Tierno’s family are severely tested, Baamum Nafi holds out with a message of hope. A slim one, but a present one nonetheless.
(Wilfred Okiche, Locarno Critics Academy 2019)
Text: Wilfred Okiche
First published: August 28, 2019