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Mati Diop Dahomey Review


Dahomey | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

Dahomey | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

Plunder Years: Diop Reflects on the Complex Realities of Reparation

Mati Diop Dahome ReviewThe spirit of Ozymandias, the classic poem from Percy Bysshe Shelley, might rouse itself in one’s mind during Mati Diop’s short but passionate documentary Dahomey – “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Detailing the return of twenty-six artifacts from France to the Republic of Benin, which were among thousands plundered from the Kingdom of Dahomey by French colonialist troops in 1892, it’s a depiction of a journey with so much more going on beneath the surface than an exchange of cultural artifacts. Utilizing some effectively poetic and fantastical elements herself, Diop attempts to give voice to the past and marry it to the voices of the present, where it’s impossible to divorce oneself from the wreckage wrought by colonialism. What, then, are the true effects of this potentially meagre, political gesture?

Beginning with the careful packaging of these twenty-six treasures in November of 2021, we’re introduced to the spirit of one, King Ghezo, whose distorted voice ripples through the darkness in contemplative dismay. Balking at being called number ‘twenty-six,’ and thus the final bit of cargo at last being reunited with the motherland, he’s certain those who have held him captive must not know who he is. But he’s returning to somewhat of a similar situation. Between these captivating asides, Diop explores an impassioned town hall with students at the University of Abomey-Calavi as they share their thoughts and debate on the merits of this return.

Some profess the need to be grateful for the progress, but who will ultimately have access to experiencing this cultural reclamation? And is it merely a paltry gesture considering these are a but a minuscule fraction of what was taken? Several of these points of discussion invite the historical discourse required to fully convey what was lost, for in truth, there’s perhaps little to be restored or recuperated in a Republic which is united through speaking the language of its captors, and thus irreparably estranged from defining elements under which these creations were initially forged.

The fluctuations between what seems sacred and profane eventually step outside the pulse of academe and into the streets of the modern day with Diop guiding DP Joséphine Drouin-Viallard into a vibrant nightlife, where eternal questions beg for answers even after kings have returned home. Much like her 2019 narrative debut, Atlantics, Diop proves to be exceptionally adept at coalescing textures and strands in remarkably dense ways. Dahomey is an excellent point of entry in an ongoing conversation. At least until we come to the moment when “the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Reviewed on February 18th at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival – Main Competition section. 67 mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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