Streaming video has turned distribution on its head: two superhero movies may now be in more than four thousand theatres nationwide, but a movie that’s screening only once at BAM Cinématek, on Thursday night – “Tilaï (The Law),” a film by the Burkinabé director Idrissa Ouedraogo, from 1990 – is in millions of homes thanks to Kanopy, the streaming service that’s widely available, free of charge, to holders of a library card or a student I.D. “Tilaï” is a masterwork that has long been hard to find. (I taped my copy of it from a public-television broadcast, in 1992.) Online viewing has opened up a vast virtual movie library that dissolves the distinction between new and old – and breaks the dependence upon the new and ballyhooed (which may be why the ballyhoo has been digitally amplified to a desperate din). If, as Ezra Pound said, literature is “news that stays news,” the film by Ouedraogo (who died in February, at the age of sixty-four) is an exemplary literary film.
It’s something of a modern, West African version of a Greek tragedy, made in villages in Burkina Faso but set in an indeterminate, mythic past that offers some of the trappings of the modern world (notably, a rifle) but not others (such as electricity and automobiles) while also hinting at a clash in mores provoked by the impingement of modernity. Saga (Rasmané Ouédraogo), a youngish man whose youth seems behind him, returns to his village after an unexplained two-year absence and is greeted by his brother, Kougri (Assane Ouedraogo), who informs him that, while he was away, Nogma (Ina Cissé), the woman who was going to marry Saga, has in fact married their elderly father, Nomenaba (Seydou Ouédraogo). In short, Saga’s former fiancée has become the brothers’ mother.
The notion of maternity is, here, a legal one. Mossi society, as depicted, is polygamous. Nomenaba is also married to the two brothers’ biological mother, Koudpoko (Mariam Ouedraogo), who sees the situation clearly, and whose very inaction is an eloquently determined action: she tells Kougri that Saga is once again leaving home, unbeknownst to their father. Kougri is caught in the middle – his loyalty to his brother and piety toward his father are in conflict. The conflict is exacerbated all the more keenly when Nogma defies the law and slips off (claiming to see an aunt in another village) to stay overnight with Saga in his hut (and, the movie makes clear, have sex with him). In effect, they haven’t only committed adultery but also incest, and, when their relations are discovered, both families are dishonored. Nogma’s father commits suicide and Nomenaba exercises his right to order the killing of Saga – and the designated executioner is Kougri.
Ouedraogo, filming in his native Sahel region of Burkina Faso and working with amateur actors (whose performances are nonetheless compactly expressive, subtly varied, and dramatically urgent), writes sharply etched texts (judging from subtitles) that don’t require much declamation but that expound the drama – and, just as important, its emotional underpinnings – both clearly and decisively. (The score, by the jazz musician Abdullah Ibrahim, reinforces the dramatic blend of modernity and tradition.) Nogma’s marriage was forced upon her by her father, no less than the punishment of Saga is ordered by his father. The subject of the film is the most literal form of patriarchy, in which fathers’ decrees are law and in which law primarily embodies the interests of fathers. The unnatural graft of unjust authority into village life is suggested in the remark of one village woman to a girl, commenting on Nogma’s forced marriage to Nomenaba: “Nogma will come to love him as I came to love your father.” But Saga’s audacious defiance of paternal authority is matched by Koudpoko’s quiet complicity, a complicity of silence that nonetheless finds a drolly dramatic counterpart in a brief scene in which Nogma closes her door to Nomenaba, who then heads to Koudpoko’s hut, which he finds equally barred. (He ends up sleeping outside, on a hammock.)
Ouedraogo (who studied filmmaking in the Soviet Union and France) films the villages’ architecture and their natural settings with love and anguish. He turns low walls and open doors into virtual frames within frames, and extracts drama from the varied landscape of hills and plains, with its expanses and vistas, its Sophoclean crossroads and the mortally decisive encounters that arise there. The theatrical rhetoric that the filmmaker underplays in speech bursts into his images, which are as poised and majestic as they are starkly analytical. It’s as if his wide-ranging views of the region were virtually crisscrossed by the sharp and implacable lines of the law. He’s also as deft with intimate action as he is with long-range compositions; he films a scene of violence, at a moment of crisis, in a single shot of brisk restraint that fuses banality and grandeur, the physical and the mythic, the profane and the sacred, with a sense of awe and horror that’s the very essence of the tragic dimension.