I’ve been attending the Toronto International Film Festival for two decades now, and in doing so, have been privileged to see some of the coolest, most groundbreaking films and their directors and stars, often long before they make a splash to mainstream audiences. Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, Takeshi Miike, Tony Jaa, Ben Wheatley, the director and stars of The Raid, and so many others got their starts or at least greatly increased their profiles on the world stage from their appearances at the Festival. Over these past 20 years, I’ve developed a pretty good sense for when I’m seeing something special that has every chance to alter the trajectory of action, horror, or heck, film in general. I was only about five minutes into Jean Luc Herbulot’s Senegalese action horror Saloum when I knew this was going to be one of those special projects.
Saloum takes place in 2003 and follows a notorious trio of mercenaries known as the Bangui Hyenas – Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah) and Midnight (Mentor Ba). The team is in the midst of traversing the African continent towards Dakar, Senegal after having fled the Guinea-Bissau coup attempt and the extraction of a powerful drug lord. When their helicopter is sabotaged with a busted fuel tank, the trio and their captive find refuge in a beach resort from Chaka’s past called Saloum, which is run by a jovial keeper named Souleymane (Ndiaga Mbow). Souleymane refuses traditional payment, and instead smilingly assigns ‘chores’ in exchange for lodging for the group. Instead of paying a room fee, you might be asked to help clean the bar, work in the fields, or go out on a jaunty trip to hunt poachers. But Saloum and Souleymane are full of secrets, and though the trio tries to blend in with the other guests, Chaka will have to reckon with his own dark past that threatens to bring down both his brothers and himself.
The editing and pacing of Saloum is frenetic, and action-packed for much of it’s runtime. Herbulot guides a story that feels both big (as in continent-spanning) and small (as in deeply personal) that can be compared to From Dusk Till Dawn but feels entirely unique. When a character remarks, late in the film, that she wants to be one of the Hyenas, I can’t help but relate. Chaka, Rafa, and Midnight each feel entirely unique and each has a distinct ‘cool’ factor and personality that almost makes them like video game characters. They deftly wield humour and deadly precision to allow the audience into their badassery.
The scenes in Saloum itself do a great job of building everyone’s characters – not just the Hyenas and Souleymane but the other guests at the resort, including the hearing-impaired and mute Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen) who knows all about the Hyenas and threatens, by way of Sign language, to reveal their true identities. A tense dinner scene where everyone’s cards are (metaphorically) thrown on the table is the film’s most gripping and cathartic moment, even compared to the action sequences that come before and after.
When Saloum switches gears from action to full-on horror, drawing on influences like Predator or even Aliens, Herbulot ramps up the pace effectively, and the look and feel of the film changes along with it. Insect-like swarms torment the characters and are coupled with a menacing soundtrack. Alliances are challenged and feel fluid and situational, and nothing and no one are safe. It’s the best kind of chaos.
Saloum played as part of TIFF’s iconic Midnight Madness programme, and there’s no film at the Festival this year that’s more of a ‘Midnight’ feature. It has all that grimy, grindhouse appeal while boasting top-shelf production and also retaining a heartbreaking core. Here’s hoping that Herbulot and his incredible cast have long careers borne out of this project, and that the specialness of Saloum is recognized. I certainly hope that it finds success and opens the door to more stories from this region.