Storytelling Round the Circle of Life & Death

by | 23 Feb 2022

Copyright: Sakaba
Copyright: Sakaba

Storytelling, confession, and bearing witness, circulates and is encircled by life and death. The promise of life, knowledge, truth, is always under the threat of death, fiction, forgetfulness. These conditions do not stand in opposition to one another. They are bound to one another. Life and death, truth and fiction, are conditional to and forone another. One could aver that this is a law. Yet, no matter how much we may respect this law, there is always a possibility of sacrificing or betraying its essence. 

There are of course distinctions between storytelling and testimony, nevertheless, following Derrida, both are acts of faith, structured by belief. This is to say, we may not expect a storyteller to be telling the truth, as in demonstrating a proof, but we do expect them to tell a story with a level of genuineness – a story that even if it suspends belief, it holds it nevertheless, holds a notion of belief to and for the story. 

I would like to consider storytelling – the circle it gathers, and the economy of death that encircles it – in the Ivorian film La Nuit des Rois (Night of the Kings), directed by Philippe Lacôte, released in 2020, as it relates to the tradition of African griots, trickery, and the theme of secrecy.  

Storytelling, as with testimony, is always delivered and in the process of translation – yet ultimately untranslatable. Scholarship on African griots, especially from anthropology and ethnography, tend to reify phonocentrism through their perspectives of literary or cinematic representations of ‘orality’.[1] My concern is that I too in some way further translate Night of the Kings and contain it as an object of study. Guided by Floyd’s writing on the circle in African music, and Derrida on testimony, my intention is to unsettle a particular historiographic perspective of griots, showing how Night of the Kings, similar to other African aesthetics, does not conform to a canon or criteria of authorship or ownership. In this short essay, I refer to the English title of the film, Night of the Kings, to reflect my position as someone who is not Ivorian and who does not speak French or Dyula. African film is always restricted, censored, and regulated, by European capitalism, in terms of production, distribution, and access. As we consider Night of the Kingsit is important to note how this film – and more broadly African cinema or moving image – is circulated, how it is shared, streamed, and critiqued, for example, here on this blog. By way of a disclaimer, my reading, to put this into a phrase, ‘follows the English subtitles’. I am sure to have missed subtle nuances, certain references, non-phonic and polyphonic tones. I do hope in some way you’ll let me know. 

The title of griot and the self-naming of a crime

There is not one story in the Night of Kings. There are stories within stories. Essentially it is about how a young man struggles in prison with the role of storyteller, after been given this duty by its slowly dying leader. Under threats, the storyteller, named ‘Roman’ (Bakary Koné), manages to weave a story, from other stories, a blend of folktale, political events, and personal experiences. There is the rise-and-fall story of Zama King (Oscar Goneti), a leader of a Microbes gang, and this is connected to an ancient story of a war between a queen and king, which in part mirrors the rivalry between two groups within the prison, arising from the anticipating death of the present leader of the prisoners. The announcement of the red moon and with it ‘the night of Roman’ is on one hand an observance of a law, and on another a chance for the leader to delay their removal from power and buy some time. Similarly, Roman seeks to buy some time, and prolong his own possible death, by ensuring his story does not end before dawn. 

Night of the Kings begins or prefaces with a law: ‘The MACA prison is a world with its own codes and laws. The first law is that the Dangôro, the supreme master, rules the prisoners. When the Dangôro falls ill, and can no longer govern, he must take his own life.’ La maison d’arrêt et de correction d’Abidjan (MACA) is a prison in Côte d’Ivoire, located at the edge of the Banco forest. Supporters of former President Laurent Gbagbo are amongst the imprisoned, following the violent protests post-election in 2010-2011. Two years afterwards, in 2013 three prisoners died during a riot or ‘mutiny’ at the prison. To this day, as Amnesty International reports, prisoners are “arbitrarily detained”, “suffering dire conditions in already overcrowded prisons. Many of them have limited access to lawyers or medical treatment”. 

It could be argued there is an allegory of Night of the Kings or at least a parallelism with the story of the film and current Ivorian politics. Certainly, the issues and themes of sovereignty, coups, and legitimacy occupy the film, manifested from a political situation in Côte d’Ivoire dominated by French imperialism, international financial controls, and resource extractionism. However, Night of the Kings is not a social drama; it is not like a documentary; it is not simply a product of its political time. In one moment of the film – if one needs to call it that – a prisoner shouts, “We don’t talk politics here.” This insistence does not come from a concern that supposes bad news ruins a good story but that to speak politics is to assume a position of power or rather authority, to police discourse, and reduce language, music, dance, to the interpretive or discursive. 

Critics have marveled over how Lacôte came up with the idea for the film. According to Lacôte, Night of the Kings is based on a true story. He was told that in MACA prisoners make others tell stories. I guess when I put it in these terms intentionally, this story loses its ‘drama’, yet, I am being cautious over making a point of this as other critics have. Such critics posit this origin of the film in order to support their view that Night of the Kings is about the power of storytelling. This ethno-cinematic perspective casts, so to speak, the role and figure of the African griot within the authority of a historian or artist. However, the status of a griot is compromised when their trickery[2] is too apparent; when they seem to be making up a story as they go along; when they are unconditional with their praise of someone. They come then to be regarded by society as nothing more than a beggar, a swindler, a scoundrel, a thief. A few of these terms Roman confesses to being. If he does align himself to the griot tradition it is through the (self-)naming of his past crimes. This is not to maintain the notion that griots have always been outcasts; merely to trouble the notion that griots are the sole authenticators and thus evidence of a history.[3] They do not predate nor out live the aporia of truth and fiction. More to the point, not all African storytelling seeks to be archivable, or filmable, but tries to at least to buy some time, to see out the night, to make it to the next day; playing with and out survival, in thinking with Petals Kalulé.  

The tradition of the griot according to an Western anthropological or ethnographical perspective is a model for critics to view Night of the Kings in terms of its ‘drama’ or ‘theatre’, where there are clear spatial divisions: there is the griot – the storyteller – in the centre of a circle formed by an attentive audience that sometimes acts as a ‘chorus’. However, this perspective, welded to a notion of authorship/ownership, fails to appreciate that the responsibility to tell a story is not simply orchestrated and inherited. The progression of a story does not follow a clear line and nor is the circle that gathers round the storyteller measurable in terms of its forum or stage. 

Roman claims to have been raised by a griot yet he hesitates to accept the role of storyteller. Roman doubts himself as much as others do at the start. Is Roman telling a story to the story itself; telling a story as this very story responds? Roman may be a griot in a traditional sense of term, however, the story he tells is one we cannot truly say whether he, Roman, the storyteller, tells (by) himself. 

Condemnation 

In the Night of the Kings, when one of the prisoners claims to have been and to have seen the powers of Zama King he is pushed back to the circle. This dismissal is more than simply an issue of their apparent falsehood: claiming to have been somewhere when the rest know they have been in prison all this time. The night of the Roman is not to be a testament, a bearing of witness, but a story that brings and gathers us in and out. Here, on this night, of the red moon, there is no place for a subject who takes a stand, and stands before, to deliver a vow and the truth. This would mark the story from the storyteller. Instead, in the night of the Roman, the story must remain within anyone to tell, so long as they do not stand by it, take it to stand upon, otherwise, the story cannot be carried, passed, shared; with its brushes, rubs, breaks, and blows. 

The shape of this story comes to form a circle, but a circle that is not perfectly round, nor misshaped in this regard. It is a circle not for its boundary but the break and opening it makes of the inside/outside, the interior/exterior – an exchange for truth and fiction – allowing the story to go elsewhere, as Kalulé would say. Everyone is responsible in this sense, or rather everyone has the possibility to respond, to be responsive to the story. This story will not be told in the seeming presence/absence of an audience, an observer, an ‘outsider’. 

Just before Roman starts to storytell, ‘Half-Mad’ (Jean Cyrille Digbeu) announces, “There’s nothing more despicable than an innocent man in prison. Everyone on this floor is guilty. No one danced their way in here.” Roman cannot refuse their responsibility. Any such notion of this type of ‘refusal’ would maintain the value of innocence. To recite another law, as it is written in English in the film: IF GOD SAY YES/ NO ONE CAN SAY NO. Indeed, to claim innocence is to be unfaithful to the concept of ‘guilty’ (not necessarily ‘guilt’), especially in prison. It is not for this young man, before he is named Roman, to decide whether or not to accept the role and to tell a story. Moreover, those of the circle are guilty in that they are responsible for the story. However, ‘for’ not in the sense of culpability but in terms of a debt – and further, of a hospitality, that perhaps especially in a prison, one feels to be a certain kind of host and hostage. The law demands a story, thus the circle is owed a story, but they in turn owe to the story a surrender. They, we, cannot receive a story, a tale, a word, without an offering. 

The condemnation Roman receives, the responsibility to tell stories on the night of a red moon, is a penalty, a death penalty, but also a gift, a chance to escape death (for one night at least), to live through the night. “Every man lies to himself until he’s faced with his own death,” Roman says, by way of an apology for rushing their story, suggesting perhaps that the threat of death led them to start at the end of the story, of Zama’s death. The possibility of lying to oneself is a reoccurring debate in philosophy. The question of whether we do knowingly and intentionally lie to ourselves has been discussed at length by Derrida in ‘History of the Lie’, published in Without Albi. Derrida maintains we cannot knowingly and intentionally lie to ourselves, for even when we know something to be false, if we abide to its claim for whatever reason, we appeal to a system of belief and attempt to be as honest and sincere as possible. I won’t dwell on this point, though I do feel it is important to mention it, for I wish to focus on the notion that when faced with our own death we are supposedly at our most truist and truthful. 

Roman’s proverb so to speak doesn’t entirely gives itself away; it doesn’t entirely give in to its own logic. That is to say, even when faced with one’s own death, as Roman himself shows without knowing perhaps, one never stops believing at least that they are capable of lying to themself. Or put another way, Roman, faced with death, may not lie to himself, but does continue – as the film or story shows – to fabricate a story, in the sense of weaving together a textile. Death never is the truth. Like life, it too is indeterminable, deceitful, false, and unpresentable. Considering all this, perhaps Roman’s proverb is said ironically. Whether he believes in the statement or not – so long as he believes in the saying – the utterance buys him some more time, to stave off death, and conjure elsewhere. 

The leader of the prisoners, the Dangôro, ‘Blackbeard’ (Steve Tientcheu) prophecises he will become a doe after he dies, and “roam the forest around the prison.” When Blackbeard accepts his death, accepts the acceptance of death, descends deep into a container, and submerges his body underwater, what we, the viewer of this film, see next is a moving image of a doe. Is this moving image to be seen as a piece of footage inserted in the film, for its evidential quality in confirming what has been foretold? Or is this to be seen as an image from Blackbeard’s imagination or psyche, of what he has always seen – what he saw when faced with death? Connected with the concepts of divinity, mysticism, and truth, there is much to consider in this relation between death and animality or rather non-human, particularly in regards to black people (African people and people of African descent) and (anti-)blackness. One aspect I would like to briefly focus on is the motif of transformation.

Turn, turns, turning, returning 

Now it could be suggested that Blackbeard transforms into a doe, and this would fall within the theme of transformation throughout the film. The (lantern) light to and for Roman’s storytelling, ‘Razor Blade’ (Macel Anzian) plays with the question of where they are from, with the imaginings that before they were inside their mother’s belly, they were the water, a snake, a tree or ox. This re-memory of enmarshment echoes in some way the battle scene between the king and queen of the ancient war story, who individually take the form of an elephant, an eagle, a needle, a thread, and fire. The term transformation could assist in conceptualising the change and shift of a spirit, towards the uninstallment of the division of human and non-human. However, I take caution with this term, that reserves a certain morpho-logic to the adjective of trans- (a prefix that functions to modify -form) which positions it as an agent of action; thus, implying that trans- always already stands for and represents transformation

While it could be argued for example that the circle transforms into a scorpion, a dance, a knife battle, (presupposing what we see in the film, of the scenes ‘outside’ the prison – when Roman is not heard speaking – are ‘representations’ of the circle’s storytelling), I wonder what it would mean to describe this more in terms of turnsturning, and returning. This would see then Blackbeard as turning to a doe, that Razor Blade has turned from a snake, that the circle turns, curves, bends, and strays. 

I want to get away from the idea of transformation as willed or activated, to avoid viewing the circle as a participant to the story, in an anticipation of the story, with its movements as a choreography, harmonious, homogenous, and ‘natural’; and furthermore, to rid the primitive notion that the circle is possessed, uncontrollable, and in a trance. On the basis that we can never fully transform to the point of completion, I would like to hold onto the notion that we can only hope to turn, turn to, or lean in, as again Kalulé would say, to (of and for) a love, a loss, a mourning – even if it is merely to turn to some idea of (re)turning.[4]   

Sexy, and the secret 

From an Anthro-morpho-logical perspective, the one character who does not seem to transform is ‘Sexy’ (Gbazi Yves Landry). They seemingly stay none other than Sexy and remain outside the story, indeed they do not join the circle until later in the film. Still though, Sexy does not move to the front of the circle, but keeps to the back, strolling along the outer edge, purposely, not wanting or needing to be at the front, finding their own space on the fringe. Thus, though they do not occupy the circle, they are part of it even from afar. 

Roman may serve a function for Blackbeard, affirmation of the red moon, the law, and the story, but Sexy is as crucial to the film, albeit they do not ‘visibly’ feature in it. Indeed, their apparent absence, assumed muteness, and ‘ambiguous’ gender and sexuality (for the viewer), carries a certain secret in the film. 

At the very start of the film, Sexy is figured and positioned as the prisoner, through the ‘game’ Guantánamo. Two prisons of the global juridical order are juxtaposed, with Sexy the meeting point in which these two symbolic worlds join. Sexy is forced to pull off their leoptard printed dress and strip naked. They stand denuded, with their hands covering their genitals. An orange hood is put over their head, disbodying them from their body and reembodying them as a sexualised ‘body’ to be tortured. The prisoners enclose around Sexy. This circle does not give Sexy much space to move about. Sexy stretches out their hand, trying to feel their way around, for a way to stay on their feet. In turn, in turns, the hands of the circle reach out to Sexy, and push them back. No tale is vocalised, but laughter circulates. The appearance of then newcomer Roman ends the game of Guantánamo. Roman becomes the figure for the next game, ridden through the prison with Half-Mad on his back, cheered on by the others, a few chasing after a chicken associated with the character called Silence (Denis Lavant). But silence gets away. Head covered in the hood, skin to the cold floor, Sexy stays crouched in a corner, as the circle breaks up and passes. 

Sexy does not speak much in the film. When their voice is heard, they sing, to a prisoner, to a client of theirs – or it is heard (off screen) as a scream. Prisoners go to them for sex, for comfort, for initimacy. Sexy probably knows all sorts of secrets from their clients or lovers. They are told by Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté), a rival of Blackbeard, that they are going to kill Koby (Stéphane Sebime), a close associate to Blackbeard. Violence and death is drawn to Sexy. In the film, Sexy, their queerness, invites violence and death, yet appears uninvited to speak on this. Koby’s throat is slit during a visit to Sexy in their cell. Sexy witnesses this murder but remains silent or rather keeps quiet. They are not made to confess. Blackbeard probably realises that learning who killed Koby will not forestall his own death. Besides, as Blackbeard eludes, Roman must finish their story. Indeed, Sexy must keep secret; must be kept a secret. 

An opening

Just as with the circle, a story has no set beginning, middle, and end. Temporalities are tied to truth and fiction, the traces of an economy of death. Roman is bound to a responsibility that demands the honor of such an economy. Yet he is not tested as a witness may be for he is always already condemned. Following the affirmation of the name (the name of the law and in the name of God – a yes that takes the no), and the acceptance of being guilty, Roman tricks, plays, and buys time, through the exchange of storytelling. This exchange is conditioned by the circle but also a secret, which is held by Sexy. Yet the secret to the story is not Sexy. This story does not belong, is not the sole property, of the singular self. It is tied to the circle. Within this circle, always a middle of sorts, the beginning does not meet the end – indeed, not even the end meets the end – but passes, crosses, rubs, and turns. 

Carson Cole Arthur is a PhD Criminology student at Birkbeck, University of London. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), his research project is on inquests of Black people killed in UK police custody and explores how accountability as an administrative and performative act produces facts for the deaths of Black people to sustain racial violence in the UK.  @carsoncoleart


[1] On this issue see Julien, E., 1992. African novels and the question of orality. Bloomington: Indiana University PressSyrotinski, M., 2002. Singular performances: reinscribing the subject in Francophone African writing. Virginia: University of Virginia Press.

[2] On trickery and African(-American) aesthetics, see Gates Jr, H.L., 2014. The signifying monkey: A theory of African American literary criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[3] For a brief overview on the tradition of griots see Bebey, F. 1975. African Music: A People’s Art. New York: Lawrence Hill & Company. 

[4] Recently AM Kanngieser spoke about this notion of turning and returning in On not knowing (for that which cannot be imagined). Keynote. Transmediale Festival 29 January 2002

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