Sira....Auteur Narrative Navigates The Sahel To Rabat

in 28th Rabat International Author Film Festival

by Steve Ayorinde

It was the turn of Rabat, the Moroccan glitzy capital or the ‘Washington of North Africa’ as it has come to be known by tourists for its wide boulevards and neat, cozy ambience, to savour the thrills in Sira last week.

Sira is the latest feature film by the cerebral and celebrated Burkinabe filmmaker, Apolline Traore.

It has been a great year for the filmmaker courtesy of the laurels that her film has garnered globally.

A 2023 production involving Burkina Faso, France, Germany and Senegal, Sira started its trophy haul with an Audience Choice award at the Berlinale in February. It followed that honour with the Silver Stallion, the second biggest prize at the Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, her hometown, in March.

And in October, Apolline walked away with the Best Director diadem at the prestigious African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA), thereby becoming the first African woman to be so honoured in the 19 years of AMAA, which is regarded globally as the African Oscars. Sira also won the award for the Best Sound at AMAA, in addition to a few other nominations, including Best Picture.

The attraction, from Berlin to Burkina or Lagos to Rabat, is the authorship stamp that 47-year-old Apolline brings to bear in telling the story of a strong-willed and resilient young nomadic Fulani woman in difficult circumstances.

It was not a surprise, therefore, to find the movie in the line-up of a dozen films in competition at the 28th edition of the Rabat International Author Film Festival, which was held between November 10 and 17, 2023.

Auteur or authorship is the key word that the organisers and members of the different juries in Rabat were particular about in picking films that are deserving of awards or special mentions.

The ability to tell a story visually and candidly, the bravery of the narrative and the ownership, from the director, of every aspect of the storytelling and production values; in fact the unmistakable identification with the entire creative process to make the film an exceptional work of art.

There were a handful of such films at the Rabat festival; and Sira, with its candid cinematic craft, was one of those that stood out.

The desert in the Sahel region, stretching across several countries from the West to Central Africa, serves as Apolline’s broad canvas in telling the emotive story of a young Fulani bride on her way to meet her suitor when her family’s caravan is attacked by a band of terrorists.

With her father killed alongside all the other men, the title character, impressively played by a first-time actor Nafissatou Cisse, expectedly becomes the main focus of the narrative.

Kidnapped, raped and left for dead, the refusal to surrender is the thrust in Sira and how she survives the several months in the rocky enclave of the desert.

Apollone’s reaction to a poser about her tendency to always portray women as strong characters was poignant. “I simply have to give them a voice. Most of the time they are portrayed as victims.”

Sira and Kemi (Ruth Werner) exemplify this strength of character in this movie.

Even as she goes through months of carrying a pregnancy and the horrendous delivery process; barely surviving on a little water and insects, Sira’s will for survival is stronger than her challenges. Kemi also typifies the strong spirit of the women after Apolline’s heart, even when they are faced with deadly adversaries such as in the kidnappers’ den.

As one of the kidnapped schoolgirls from different countries who are forced into sexual slavery but who refused to be conquered mentally, identifying her as a Nigerian gives the story a wider appeal, given the scourge of Boko Haram terrorists across northern Nigeria.

The film does not give out excessive information. It doesn’t set out to spoon-feed the audience, rather it allows the viewer to watch the story unfold through narration and great acting. And here, credit must be given to Cyril Morin’s music score and Nicolas Berteyac’s excellent camera work, which combine beautifully to give the film a sumptuous, near eye-candy outlook.

Neither the location nor terror cells are identified, even though an ISIS flag is discernible around the leader, Yere (Lazare Minoungou).

Although the film stretches the imagination in some parts, almost to the point of suspending disbelief especially as Sira’s growing pregnancy gives an indication of the time frame she’s been in the same place, wearing the same clothes and hair style, the weaknesses pale in significance against the overall import of the movie.

Yet, in celebrating womanhood, Sira the movie, also gives a voice to tolerance and religious harmony, moving the story beyond a rape-revenge narrative.

Sira’s suitor, Jean Sedi (Abdramane Barry) is a Christian farmer, who got a love-is-all-that-matters nod for the inter-religious marriage from Sira’s father and tribal chief, Tidiane (Seydou Diallo) and is eager to find and take his wife back.

The subject of betrayal is, of course, rampant in the type of story that Sira embodies, for bad and ‘good’ reasons. It is first encountered through Moustapha, brilliantly played by the Ivorian actor, Mike Danon; and later through the old and experienced Karim (Ildevert Meda) through whom Sira has a safe child delivery and gets the terror cell to implode.

But there’s a strong message in the movie. The struggle for water, which acts as a tribute to vulnerable women in various parts of Africa, whose exposure to poverty and lack of access to potable water often leaves them predisposed to abductions and sexual exploitation.

This point in the movie is accentuated when Sira says, “At least there is water here” in one of her deadly encounters with the terrorists in the desert.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the movie won WaterAid’s Special Prize, with a monetary reward in March, for addressing the problems of access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for women in the context of climate change.

Sira’s outing at the Rabat International Author Film Festival was rewarded with a Special Jury Prize from the International Jury.

Its impressive run on the global stage may have just begun given that the movie is Burkina Faso’s

Steve Ayorinde
Edited by Amber Wilkinson