By Michael Sicinski
Apolline Traoré’s latest film is direct, and in times of political strife there is undoubtedly something to be said for directness. Burkina Faso has become a hotbed of terrorism of late, with various factions affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara moving in from Niger and Mali. Meanwhile, the government of Captain Ibrahim Traoré (no relation) is a military junta installed following a coup last September, and while Traoré’s anti-Islamist forces may seem like the least worst option, this is certainly cold comfort for ordinary Burkinabés caught in the crossfire.
Sira is an unusual film in that at first it superficially resembles a lot of the stately art cinema that’s traditionally come from Northern and Eastern Africa. Early scenes emphasize the rugged beauty of the desert landscape, as well as the mix of daily activity and political concerns that form the background of Burkinabé life. We are introduced to a Peul tribe led by an enlightened chief (Seydou Diallo) who welcomes the fact that Sira (Nafissatou Cissé) will be marrying Jean-Sidi (Abdramane Barry), a Christian, believing it to be a felicitous union. But his second-in-command Moustapha (Mike Danon) objects, and soon the tribe are beset by marauders who kill all the men and kidnap the women. After Sira stands up to Yere (Lazare Minoungou), the leader of the terrorists, she is driven into the desert, raped, and left for dead.
What follows is an unexpected hybrid of Sissako’s Timbuktu and I Spit On Your Grave. Sira discovers the camp, and spends months hiding in a nearby cave. Much to her horror, she is pregnant with Yere’s child and must give birth on her own. With the help of Karim (Ildevert Mêda), an older freedom fighter disillusioned with the indiscriminate violence of the younger Islamists, she plots to destroy the camp and get revenge on those who wronged her. Sira is a quick study with an automatic rifle, and is rewarded for her perseverance with a final-reel reunion with Jean-Sidi. The surviving terrorists are rounded up by the military, who save the day like a John Ford cavalry. Odd stuff.
Traoré uses bright lines to establish good and evil, righteousness and savagery. Yere believes he is a freedom fighter but clearly no better than a warlord infidel. Moustapha, meanwhile, is a self-loathing homosexual who rapes one of the cell members (Moïse Tiemtore), along with the occasional female captive. It’s not that one wants to defend these al-Qaeda cretins, but Traoré has made a film that follows the basic template of a Rambo sequel, tackling complicated geopolitics by dumbing things down.