Mati Diop’s Dahomey

Mati Diop’s Dahomey (2024)

One of the richest films to premiere at this year’s Berlinale runs a mere sixty-seven minutes. Spirits of the dead stirred angry mischief in Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019), the winner of the Grand Prix in Cannes, but in Dahomey, a contender for the Golden Bear in Berlin, a single voice, as metallic as the skeletal structure of the wooden statue of King Gezo, who ruled the African kingdom of Dahomey in the mid-1800s, reflects on the neglect of his colonial captors and the hope promised by his imminent return. As Jessica Kiang points out in Variety, the king’s “pose looks irresistibly like he’s giving a Black Power salute.”

For the cheated Senegalese construction workers of Atlantics, hope lay in setting out for Europe. In Dahomey, Diop reverses the journey. In November 2021, twenty-six artworks created during the kingdom’s three centuries were shipped from the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris to present-day Benin. Diop documents the meticulous care put into securing the king in his coffin-like crate, and the viewer is by his side as he is sealed in darkness. Then, the voice.

“The interludes of Gezo’s commentary are relatively short,” notes Kiang. “But his haughty words, broken like shards of ancient pottery, and spoken in Fon, the Dahomey language still used by roughly one-sixth of Benin’s population, flavor the whole film with mysterious unease.” For Jay Weissberg at Film Verdict, having the king speak is Diop’s single “misstep” in Dahomey, but at Little White Lies, David Jenkins finds that it’s her “final masterstroke.”

Glimpses of vibrant nightlife, the gently shimmering waves of the Atlantic, and a humming skyline set the stage for the official reception of the artworks, an event attended by political and cultural movers and shakers, thronged by curious crowds, and heralded in a newspaper headline with a single word: “Historique.” Some are moved to tears, others to anger. The return of twenty-six objects out of the seven thousand stolen by the French can and must be seen as a first step, one that instills pride in some of the participants in a meaty and vigorous debate among university students, while others regard the gesture as an “insult.”

Wendy Ide, writing for Screen, will not be alone in finding the exchange of ideas “electric and galvanizing.” In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney suggests that Dahomey is “both a response to Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s 1953 inquiry into African art and colonialism, Statues Also Die, and an ongoing debate on the significance of returned artifacts and the responsibility of new generations to continue the vital work of conservation and cultural reclamation.”

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