September 21, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Jean Luc Herbulot
French and Wolof with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2003 in Senegal and briefly in Guinea-Bissau and Gambia, the horror film “Saloum” features a predominantly African cast (with a few Latinos and white people) representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: Three Sengalese mercenaries for hire are tasked with transporting a Mexican drug dealer to Dakar, but they end up in a camp in the Saloum Delta, where they encounter mysterious and sinister wind monsters.
Culture Audience: “Saloum” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in suspenseful horror movies that explore issues of fallouts from civil wars and exploitation of children.
The horror movie “Saloum” artfully poses this question: “What’s scarier: monsters on the outside or personal demons on the inside?” During this intensely suspenseful story, three African mercenaries for hire have to confront this question, as a trip to Senegal to transport a Mexican drug dealer turns into a living nightmare. “Saloum” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
Written and directed by Jean Luc Herbulot, “Saloum” takes place in 2003, and begins with an Atlantic Ocean scenery in the African country of Guinea-Bissau. A woman says in a voiceover: “They say revenge is like a river. And our actions are the dugouts guided by the current, whose bottom is reached when we drown.” It’s revealed at the end of the movie who said these words, since these words are repeated in the movie’s last scene.
But most of the movie follows three Sengalese mercenaries who call themselves Bangui’s Hyenas. Chaka (played by Yann Gael), who is in his mid-30s, is the group leader and is the most fearless and ruthless of this trio. Rafa (played by Roger Sallah), who is in his late 30s or early 40s, is physically the strongest. Minuit (played by Mentor Ba), who is in his 60s, is the most spiritually minded and has a visually striking appearance with long white dreadlocks for his hairstyle.
The first time that viewers see this renegade trio, they are rampaging through Guinea-Bissau, where there’s chaos on the streets. According to a caption on screen: “The military declares a coup d’état. Their pledge to restore order looks more like bloodshed. First in their crosshairs is the international drug trade. Bad news for the pushers, unless you have a military plan.”
The mercenaries who call themselves Bangui’s Hyenas find several dead or dying people on the streets. Minuit (which means “midnight” in French) has a mysterious powder that he blows in people’s faces to render them unconscious. The three mercenaries burst into a building, where they emerge with several gold bricks and have captured a human as bounty.
The bounty is a Mexican drug dealer named Felix (played by Renaud Farah), who doesn’t talk much in this story because he spends about half of his screen time passed out from the powder blown in his face by Minuit. Rafa says a drug cartel is paying “a million” to bring Felix back alive. Felix insists that they take him to Dakara, the capital of Senegal.
But on the private plane ride in a small aircraft, something goes terribly wrong: The plane is shot at, and the bullets have penetrated the gas tank. The plane runs out of fuel while over Gambia. They are forced to make an emergency landing in the Saloum region of Senegal. It’s mostly a desert area.
Rafa is suspicious about who was shooting at the plane, and he wonders if they might have been set up to make this emergency landing. Chaka isn’t as skeptical because he doesn’t think that the drug cartel would risk this type of double-cross when the cartel wants Felix back alive. As a precaution, Chaka and Rafa bury their gold bricks near certain trees in the desert, while Minuit blows the powder in Felix face so he’ll lose consciousness and won’t see where the gold is being buried.
The down side to Felix being unconscious for a certain period of time is that he has to be carried through the desert. The four men, with Felix awake, eventually find a boat to use, and they end up in Baobub Camp, an isolated holiday gathering area in the coastal region of Sine-Saloum. The camp is so remote that the nearest village is 10 kilometers (about six miles) away.
These four interlopers try to pretend to be innocent tourists who are just passing through the area, in order to fit in with the other camp dwellers. They use aliases to hide their identities. Chaka says his name is Cheikh, Rafa calls himself Rufin, Minuit is now known as Maudou, and Felix uses the fake name Felipe. But it isn’t long before these criminals expose how dangerous they can be.
The camp has a friendly host named Omar (played by Bruno Henry), who tells these new visitors: “Saloum is a natural sanctuary. It’s our job to preserve it.” The four guests are invited to a group dinner, where they get to know the other dwellers of the camp.
A woman in her 20s named Awa (played by Evelyne Ily Juhen) immediately stands out because she’s the only deaf and mute person in the group. She can communicate by sign language, which only a few people in the camp know. Awa is no pushover. When Rafa makes rude suggestive remarks to her, she scowls and gives him the middle finger.
One of the people at the camp notices that Chaka has gold dust on his hands. He fabricates a story about how he works in a gold mine. Chaka also lies and says that “Felipe” is a contact for South American investors who are interested in the gold. As time goes on, Minuit suspects that Chaka is being dishonest about other things, because he notices that Chaka has been acting as if his nerves are on edge ever since they arrived at the camp.
In a private conversation between Minuit and Rafa, Minuit mentions his suspicions that Chaka might be hiding something from them. It’s implied during the story that Minuit can communicate with spirits or has a psychic side to him. At the very least, he’s the most intuitive member of this mercenary group. And he’s right: Chaka is hiding a big secret, which is eventually revealed in the movie.
Chaka tells Omar and the rest of the camp dwellers that the four men in Chaka’s group will eventually go to the Senegal city of Kedougou in three days. However, those plans go into awry when monsters suddenly descend on the camp. The best way to describe these creatures is that they look like swirling dust devils with black mop-like fur, like a Puli dog. And since “Saloum” is a horror movie, not everyone makes it out alive.
The terrified camp dwellers find out that these monsters can be killed with guns. But there’s something else that’s life-threatening: If the humans’ ears aren’t covered, they hear a distinct and dangerous sound from the monsters that causes humans to eventually get pustule infections on their bodies and they cough up blood. Headphones are used to block out this noise. Awa doesn’t need the headphones because she’s deaf.
“Saloum” isn’t the type of horror movie that doesn’t explain why these monsters suddenly arrive to plague the camp. There’s a clear cause-and-effect that conjured up the arrival of these sinister spirits. As the humans fight to stay alive, people who previously didn’t care for each other have to form alliances to help each other, while other people are left to fend for themselves.
All of the cast members are perfectly fine in their roles. However, the characters with the most intriguing backstories are Chaka and Awa, who are both trying in their own ways to heal from emotional pain. Awa knows the pain of being isolated because of her disability, while Chaka knows the pain of being isolated because of his dark secret. It’s eventually revealed that Chaka, who seems arrogant and fearless on the outside, is a mess of insecurities on the inside.
The monsters signify what can happen when evil intentions are unresolved and allowed to fester. “Saloum” is also a disturbing story about the fallout of war. This movie is not for people who are overly sensitive to seeing life’s atrocities, but it’s a riveting depiction of how sins of the past can haunt people in the present.
UPDATE: IFC Films/IFC Midnight will release “Saloum” in select U.S. cinemas on September 2, 2022. Shudder will premiere the movie on September 8, 2022.