A bloody military coup taking place in Guinea-Bissau in 2003, the semi-mythical mercenary trio known as the Bangui Hyenas (Les Hyènes de Bangui) are hired by drug lord Felix to extract him from the capital and courier him to Dakar in Sénégal, five hundred kilometres further north on the west coast of Africa, but with their fuel tanks punctured in the escape they are forced to land in the Saloum Delta, leaving a suitcase of gold buried in the sand as they seek shelter.
Chaka, Rafa and Papa Minuit assuming new identities, their host Omar of the Baobab Camp welcomes them to join the guests already staying including the mute Awa and a captain of the local police, both of whom represent threats in their own way, but the greater danger is in the cursed land they must traverse, full of spirits only kept in abeyance by sacrifice.
Saloum directed by Jean Luc Herbulot from a script co-written with Pamela Diop, Yann Gael is Chaka, the leader who keeps secrets even from those to whom he is closest, Roger Sallah is Rafa, his mouth inviting trouble his fists must solve, and Mentor Ba is witch doctor Papa Minuit, while Evelyne Ily Juhen is Awa, aware who they really are and counting on their reputation to provide her own way out.
Having the feel of Weird West but set against the stunning landscapes of coastal Africa and told in a variety of languages including Awa and Chaka’s fluent signing, the early scenes are both menacing and stylish as they set up the expectation of a thriller of revenge and betrayal which spins off in a new direction as hidden agendas rise to the surface along with the full Moon.
Chaka plagued by nightmares of children in chains and so terrified of water that Minuit must knock him unconscious in order to travel by boat, Saloum is a story tied to the land from which it comes, a mix of post-colonialism and child soldiers and the legacies they leave behind, mixed with folklore and abandoned to grow under the harsh and unforgiving sun through generations of poverty.
The transition from action to supernatural perhaps not as smooth as it might be, nor do the diverse elements come together entirely seamlessly, the legacy of the Bainuk people and the curse of their murdered king Sira Bana dropped with the emphasis on urgency rather than coherence, but as a spectacle to be admired Saloum stands alone and deserves to be seen purely because it is unlike anything else similar.
Having screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Saloum is now streaming on Shudder