Friday, October 10, 2008

Delwende: Inspired By Actual Events

Here is the situation: innocent women accused of witchcraft by men who find them “inconvenient,” are forced to prove their innocent through harsh rituals or suffer banishment or worse. The setting: 1690’s Salem? No, it is Burkina Faso today. Inspired by documented cases in Burkina Faso, S. Pierre Yameogo’s Delwende (now screening at MoMA) casts a critical eye at the cruel and discriminatory practices excused in the name of tradition.

As Delwende opens, the village of Saana appears untouched by time, except for its sole link to the modern world, a portable radio, on which intermittent news reports warn of a meningitis epidemic plaguing the region. However, for the elders of Saana, witchcraft will prove a handier scapegoat for the recent deaths of village children.

Sixteen year-old Pougbila is raped following a village celebration. Shortly thereafter, her father Diarrha marries her off to a much older husband in a nearby village. The rapidity of events arouses the suspicions of Pougbila’s mother Napoko, but before she can act on them, a village ceremony declares her a witch. As a result, she is cast out of Saana and denied food and water by the suspicious neighboring villages. Even her family elders spurn her, in supposed deference to the will of their ancestors. Only Pougbila rallies to her defense when word of her mother’s plight reaches her.

Determined to confront her father for his treachery, Pougbila must first find Napoko, presumed to have taken refuge in one of the squalid shelters for accused witches in the capital city of Ougadougou (one such shelter provides the film’s title). When Pougbila reaches the city, the film finally shows some of the outward trappings of modern life, but many of the same superstitions and prejudice persist.

Delwende actually picks up steam as it goes along. Although best described as an issue film, Pougbila’s determination that “the truth will out” gives Delwende a strong pursuit-of-justice narrative drive. As a call for “change,” it is also pretty effective. Napoko’s scenes of suffering in the wilderness and the callousness of her family and neighbors are difficult to watch. Frankly, some busybody Christian missionaries who will have no truck with superstition or cultural relativism would have been a welcome relief.

Yameogo frames some striking visuals and facilitates some fine performances, most notably from Claire Ilboudo as the determined Pougbila and Thomas Ngourna as the wise village fool, under whose watchful eyes the story unfolds. Grim and naturalistic in the extreme, Delwende does produce a measure of hope in its discreet but satisfying conclusion. It screens through Monday at MoMA.