Film review, Bronx-Barbes (2000)

Many years ago I inherited a copy of the film Bronx-Barbes from a journalist leaving Abidjan. Sadly it was on VHS and I never manged to find myself in a place with a player (and the cassette). Two years ago I bought a copy when the film came out on DVD. But I don’t own a DVD player, and with the baby, time to watch films has been in short supply. Finally last night – with a borrowed DVD player and the family out of town – everything came together.

French film maker Eliane de Latour’s Bronx-Barbes (2000) is the story of two young criminals in Abidjan looking for their place in the world; interacting with a multiplicity of gangs in the poorest parts of the city. Both have their dreams of escaping this violent underworld, perhaps even to travel to the West, but they struggle against the realities of poverty. In a very French way, there’s not necessarily a strong story-arch, but we get a series of scenes which see the characters integrate a gang, make friends, and for the main character, Soul B, fall in love.

Overall the film is excellent and done to a very high quality, though the violence will not be to everyone’s taste. I can’t think of any stock characters – everyone had three dimensions, despite the large cast of characters. de Latour is as much an anthropologist as a film-maker, with extensive experience in West Africa. Apparently she carries out a deep ethnographic survey before each film project. It shows.

To my surprise, searching the film credits, all the senior positions (actors aside) seemed to be taken by European names. I’m sure this cannot have been entirely the case, because the language, gestures and attitudes in the film are deeply rooted in the nouchi-speaking underclass of Abidjan.

The irony is obvious when you think that most recent Ivorian films and tv series focus on the Cocody-based middle classes, and ignore either the urban underclass or rural life. They tend to be aspirational rather than gritty. They’re filmed in bourgeois family homes, while in contrast, Bronx-Barbes covers the full drama of Abidjan’s cityscape, taking in urban spaces like the FHB bridge, Plateau, the port, and a series of slums.

If I had to pick faults, I sometimes found the dialogue a little stiff and lacking spontaneity, I didn’t feel every scene served the story (did the section with Jimmy Danger really advance the narrative much?), and perhaps to be expected from a film dating from 2000, the DVD images have sadly come through an interlacing process which rather spoiled one of the final scene. Those who haven’t spent a huge amount of time in Abidjan may want to put the sub-titles on to grasp the dialogue. The soundtrack was authentic, though perhaps we could have had a little less Magic System to broaden the range.

Nevertheless, it’s one of the best films to come out of Cote d’Ivoire in the last two decades, and I’m excited to see the follow-on, Apres L’ocean, which sits unwatched on my bookshelf. For me, Bronx-Barbe’s key strength is the incredible and authentic portrayal of street culture. The choreography of the funeral scene I found particularly moving. If you’ve lived in Abidjan and haven’t met anyone who speaks and gestures like this, you were probably living a very sheltered life.

Finally, while not having overt political messages, I think it casts an illuminating light on phenomena that were to play a leading role in the decade following the film with its Jeunes Patriotes and Charles Ble Goude. There are parallels with the documentary Shadow Work. Scholarly studies like Mike McGovern’s Making war in Cote d’Ivoire point at the ‘playfulness’ of the Ivorian conflict, and while you might be tempted to see this as an anthropological metaphor too far, Bronx-Barbes certainly points – with a certain amount of humour – to the heavily stylised use of Hollywood images (cowboys, kung fu, Vietnam movies, American rap).

Anyway, a great film, sadly little known in Abidjan.

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