Philippe Lacôte Nuit des Rois

Philippe Lacôte on set

La nuit des rois is a film about prison, not a prison film

We spoke with Philippe Lacôte about his new film, set in an Abidjan prison.

Philippe Lacôte’s La nuit des rois (a coproduction between France, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Quebec) is set in la MACA (Maison d’arrêt et de correction d’Abidjan), a large prison in the heart of Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire where Lacôte grew up. A sprawling collective prison with thousands upon thousands of prisoners, la MACA is run by Barbe Noire (Steve Tientcheu), a gangster warlord who has recently fallen ill. Feeling that he’s losing control of his world, Barbe Noire decides to reinstate the tradition of the “Roman,” in which one inmate is designated as the storyteller (in the griot tradition) for the night. The stakes aren’t exactly clear at first, but the Roman is expected to tell a story that lasts all night or face certain consequences. Barbe Noire selects a young pickpocket (played by Koné Bakary) as the Roman, who sets out telling the story of the legendary street kid Zama King and his untimely demise.

Prison films are very similar the world over. It has been codified into a genre in itself, with the various roles and inner workings of jail a familiar trope to people who have never even been within a mile of any prison. But La nuit des rois is a prison movie in setting, not in genre. Though there are inevitable tropes, few of the usual clichés come up throughout the film.

La Nuit des Rois

“I was formed by genre cinema,” says Lacôte. “I didn’t go to film school, but I grew up in a home that shared a wall with a movie theatre. For nearly 10 years of my life, I watched only Bollywood movies and Bruce Lee movies. That’s all I watched — some sword-and-sandal movies, some Westerns. Chaplin, too, but those are also genre movies. (laughs) Genre movies are a great way to learn, because the codes are always the same. It’s no coincidence that I wanted to make a prison movie, because I’m very interested in prison movies within the context of genre. But La nuit des rois wasn’t made by a genre filmmaker; I like to play with the codes of genre films. By setting it in prison, I was staking a claim that yes, I respect the codes, but I’m taking it somewhere else. It’s not a prison film — it’s a film set in the prison.

“You forget the prison, after a while. What matters is what happens inside of it,” he continues. “People who are in prison exist within it. They don’t just sit around all day thinking about the concept of prison. They have relationships in there: power relationships, friendships, violent relationships, relationships with staff. (…) What I wanted to do was observe prison as a society. That’s how you get to forgetting the walls. I also chose to set it somewhere where there are collective cells. I couldn’t have made this in a prison with individual cells. We wouldn’t have been able to forget the doors. But here, it feels like an arena.”

The film is centered around not only the story that Roman tells but the way he tells it, and the reactions of the prisoners around him. What the Roman says can prompt prisoners to laugh, to sing, to dance; he is in dialogue with the other prisoners, and Lacôte spends as much time showing us images from the story being told as he does showing us Roman telling the fragmented, increasingly serpentine story of Zama King.

La Nuit des Rois
Steve Tientcheu as Barbe Noire in La nuit des rois

“The moment you start to work on the very concept of telling a story, that comes up,” says Lacôte. “It’s a movie that tells the story of someone telling a story. But when you set this story on the African continent, you can’t ignore oral tradition. We can’t ignore the function of the griot, who functions as a storyteller, a poet and a historian. The movie is certainly positioned that way. But what interests me, today, is to show an urban, contemporary Africa. The film references hip hop, it references slam poetry. You could see it as a battle, in a way. It was very important to me that prison be more than just a pretext to storytelling. It couldn’t just be about, ‘This guy’s telling a story and here’s that story.’ The prisoners needed to engage with this story with their words, their bodies. At the beginning, Roman is up there telling his story; by the end, the whole prison is telling that same story. There are dancers, singers, and that comes close to Greek tragedy, but also to storytelling traditions from Côte d’Ivoire that mix all of that up. The actors could match up to that pretty easily.”

The film also incorporates much of the real world, making textual references to political events and even to City of God, which is mentioned textually in the film (through the name of the child gangs, referred to as “Microbes”) and greeted with warmth by the prisoners. 

“Côte d’Ivoire is a young country, a young society,” says Lacôte. “We’ve only been a country with its own independence for 60 years, and we try to create our models, good or bad. We absorb cinema as if it were reality. It was important for me to make those kinds of references. Beyond that, it corresponds to the realities of the country. 70% of people in Côte d’Ivoire are under 30 years old. It’s a young population. La MACA is in my old neighbourhood, in Youpougon, which has 1.5 million people. La MACA is between Youpougon and another community with 1.5 million people in it, so who do you think fills that prison? People from neighbouring ring communities. The borders aren’t super clear, geographically. You can move freely within Côte d’Ivoire. But it also means you can go to prison for tons of reasons that don’t necessarily make you a bad person or even a criminal. In that sense, there’s sort of a porous border between prison and the outside.”

Laetitia Ky in La nuit des rois
Laetitia Ky in La nuit des rois

La nuit des rois also integrates real stories from the streets of Abidjan. Case in point: The infamous Zama King really did exist. 

“I did a six-month internship in a gang,” says Lacôte. “It wound up costing me in more ways than one, but I did do six months in a gang. I needed to figure out the codes. I come from a neighbourhood that’s pretty rough to begin with, but I did six months to delve even deeper into all of that. 25% of the extras on the film were former prisoners. That reality was very present. Truth blended with fiction after the shoot, because I was assaulted by a Microbes gang. I’ve had three surgeries since then, so it was pretty serious. But after that, I was in Montreal, working on the editing. I never stopped. A lot of the care I received after the attack was in Montreal. That’s the way I tend to work — by immersing myself in the worlds that I’m depicting in the films. That’s what interests me as a filmmaker. In documentaries, too. Making a movie about prison doesn’t mean you have to wind up in prison yourself, but you have to go in there and take a look. That’s my way of working — sometimes too much! (laughs)” ■

La nuit des rois opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 12. Watch the trailer here:

La nuit des rois, directed by Philippe Lacôte

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