With its fresh take on the genre traditions of Westerns, thrillers and horror movies, Jean Luc Herbulot’s Saloum was one of the hidden gems of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It follows a trio of mercenaries called the Bangui Hyenas who decide to hide out in a camp located in a mysterious and dangerous region of Senegal. Before long, supernatural forces emerge and dark secrets are revealed. This inventive premise laid the foundation for a wide-ranging conversation with Herbulot, who passionately explained the story’s background and its social and cultural significance.
Shane Slater: What was the starting point for this story?
Jean Luc Herbulot: A creative weekend with my partner Pamela Diop. We went to Saloum and even the name sounds heavy. And I went there and in 30 minutes or so, I fell in love. Every five minutes I was like, “We need to make a movie here.” The surprising thing is that it’s so wide and so different that what you’re seeing in the movie is like 1/10th of what you can see in Saloum. It’s very big, with a lot of different landscapes. So our challenge was to get stuck in one place and try do the movie in that place.
We built the story together and there were no mercenaries at that moment. It was just about a camp with people coming inside and then getting attacked. So the story was made with Pamela and then from my side came the political background, because I’m a big fan of history. African history and also the geopolitics of what’s happening there, because I grew up there. I left the war when I was 17. So my heart is in Africa and I wanted to talk about all this, but at the same time inspire people about Africa. Inspire the kids to say we can have heroes and we can make them look great and cool.
At the same time, we can also break the cycle of “a hero is great” or “a hero can do everything.” No, a hero can die! So it was all about questioning the hero and at the same time creating them. And that’s what what I found interesting. At the same time, you can bring across that the movie is a third act of their story, and not just the first act of an origin story. Even with that we tried to do something different.
SS: You’re obviously playing with different genre tropes in this film. What influences your style?
JLH: The challenge of Saloum for me was to do the inverse. To lose all the references, which is a way more difficult job than just having references. So what I said to Pamela as a producer and as a filmmaker was, “The movie can be bad, the movie can be good. But what we can’t fuck up is that it has to look unique and fresh.” If we fuck it up, then we’re just going to be melted into all the movies in that world, the world that we live in right now. And especially with social media and stuff, like everybody’s watching a lot of movies every day. It can be short movies, features. Everybody is watching. So if we don’t look different, there is no necessity to do it. So it was very important for us to do something different and mixing the genre was the goal.
SS: I love that the film is playing in Midnight Madness at TIFF, because it’s so important to have films from Africa and developing countries be seen as genre films. There’s a perception that foreign films need to be heavy, serious dramas. Did any of that play into your decisions in making the film?
JLH: Never. I’m going to be very honest with you. When we started and when we finished, our main strategy was to ask, “How are we going to distribute this in Africa in a new fashion?” Because when I say doing things in a new way, it’s not just doing a movie, it’s also the industry around it.
So when we finished the movie, it was all about how are we going to distribute that? And how are we able to create a new kind of distribution because distribution in Africa is still hard. Not in all the countries, but most of French language Africa. We don’t have a lot of movie theaters. And most of those movie theaters play American movies most of the time. For example, in Senegal, Black Panther has been there for two years in the theater. I’m not exaggerating.
That’s great, but it proves that there is a problem somewhere. We don’t have the content that the audience wants. And the weird thing about African cinema is that if you watch carefully you can see an African film in every festival in the world. But do these African movies work when they come back on the continent? No. And the African people are not watching them that much.
So you have to ask yourself the question, “Are we doing the movies for the people that are supposed to watch it? Are we doing the movies for other people?” And if it’s other people then, okay. But it cannot be that the entire African cinema is just that, you know. And that’s where Lacme Studios is birthed from. From that frustration of saying, “Hey, its great to have dramas. It’s great to have some very “auteur-ish” movies that are very smart, blah, blah.” But at the same time, we want to have fun.
We want to inspire people. That’s why I’m paying for my ticket to the movies. I want to go out with some dreams and some people I want to follow. And I can tell you that when I was 7, or I hope, even when I’m 38 now, that I can go to the movies and watch Saloum and be like, “Oh, shit, I want to be a Hyena.” I want to run with them in the desert with that music. And that for me is the movies. It brings you somewhere that is so powerful. It takes all your sense away so that when it’s finished, you’re like, “Fuck the world that I’m living in. I want to go back there.” [Laughs].
So that’s what we tried to bring in Saloum. That uniqueness. And at the same time, that fun. And also showing to the entire world that Africa is not just about sickness, death and starving. It was about inspiring. And I sincerely hope that the 10 year old will go see that and say that’s what I want to be, that’s what I want to create. I can do a comic book about the Hyenas and stuff like that. Let’s create something that is already alive in Africa, but that we’re not using, which is our myths, monsters, history.
SS: From a Jamaican perspective, I was curious about your inclusion of the folklore and the horror aspects. In Jamaica there’s sometimes a rejection of horror because of a combination of Christianity and a reverence for the folklore, that makes people not want to mess with it. How is it in Senegal and other African countries? Is there an appetite for horror?
JLH: I’m not Senegalese, so I don’t want to talk for them. But I can say as a stranger in Senegal, or as a Congolese, I’m quite surprised by how they embraced their local religion, as dumb as it sounds. I’m quite fascinated about how they are very proud about it and how they use it, and how they are not hiding about using it. It’s the inverse in the Congo. It’s very taboo to talk about these things. I will say 1/3 of this movie comes from dreams. And from very weird dreams. I will not go into detail.
So even my subconscious has a lot of things to do with what happens in Saloum, and I’m not entirely the master of that. So I would be the worst person if I say to you I don’t believe in all those things. Those things exist in Africa. Some people want to see it, some people don’t want to see it. I saw it, I lived it. I’ve been in the Saloum. And I can tell you, it’s as mystical as it sounds. Not like in the movie. You’re not going to get attacked by monsters. But I can tell you, there are some things happening there.
I love your question and I thank you for that. I also hope that when I say inspire, I hope that people understand that our myths and heroes are not just about bragging. It’s also about a print of our history. And if we don’t care about it, and if we if we don’t dust for it and try to find it, it’s going to disappear. And we’re going to disappear as a continent. And that’s also why I make movies. For me, it’s a part of helping us remember that we can be inspiring and we can inspire. And that’s very important.
I’m talking about Africa, but I can also talk about Asia, I can talk about South America. If you don’t want your culture to disappear, you have to work with it, and for it, and in it. That’s why I’m quite mad when we’re talking about African movies, because I feel like we have such a treasure and people are just looking one way. And I’m like, why are we not looking at the other way? And it’s as interesting! And the proof is that if the movie can be Midnight Madness, it means that somewhere, the things that we have to say are as interesting as everybody else.
We’re talking about a movie that is quite unique. So it’s like, we are at the beginning of something. Which means that when we’re going to be as mature as we can be, then we will have some bigger stuff. And then it means that of course people can be interested, of course it can work. And of course, we have to bring that to the screen to people even outside of Africa. Especially outside of Africa, because they really need to start seeing that what we have there is a treasure.
SS: One of the things that stands out in the film is the sense of brotherhood among these three men. How did you ensure that this came across so strongly in the characters and the performances?
JLH: It was very important for me because that’s one of the sicknesses that we have in Africa, and I think in black history in general. You’re coming from Jamaica, I’m coming from Congo. Most of my best friends in France are from the West Indies. We always forget that we are always better served when we do our things together. And the Hyenas are half Senegalese, half central Africa. There is one coming from Congo, there’s one coming from Central Africa, there is another one coming from Gabon. And I love the three of them holding their heads together and chanting the same thing. Because that’s where I’m saying, this is Africa. And this is how we can look when we are bound together to find something that is bigger.
That’s a very interesting question because that was a little signature in some way of saying, “You see what we can do when we are together and when we respect each other?” When you watch the trio, the Hyenas, they’re never talking about their origins. They don’t care about that. They walk the same path and in the same rythmn. So there were a lot of micro messages here and there about what I think can be inspiring for people.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]