Berlinale 2024 review: Dahomey (Mati Diop)

Dahomey is important, with its message crucial to restitution providing the beginning of righting the wrongs of colonialism.”

Everything about Mati Diop’s Dahomey is magical.

Mati Diop is no stranger to mystical filmmaking. With Dahomey, the French-Senegalese filmmaker turns the non-fiction genre into a ‘magical documentary,’ as she herself points out in the press kit for the Berlinale Competition title. From the idea of restitution of cultural objects long overdue, to a people who clearly possess cultural awareness in every part of their body and soul, to the futuristic voice Diop gives to her leading character, artifact number 26, the last of the first batch of the nearly 7,000 looted art objects and statues which France returned to Benin in 2021. The mystical, presented in a way that makes us think deeply about our role in the troubles of the world, is present at every turn in Dahomey.

The film is just over one hour in length, at once packed with ideas but also quite still in images and sounds, all amounting to a spellbinding watch. One doesn’t have to keep up with endless interviews or dense writing, as Dahomey is a documentary that must be felt, first and foremost. It is a fairy tale with a somewhat happy ending about some important objects coming home at last. And the documentary’s short length will guarantee the film a spot on broadcast television, where it will hopefully reach the highest number of viewers. Because Dahomey is important, with its message crucial to restitution providing the beginning of righting the wrongs of colonialism.

The artifacts’ connection with the people of modern Benin — Dahomey was the name of the kingdom which was situated in the south of the country, and prospered under the Houegbadja dynasty from the 17th to the 19th centuries — is undeniable. At a public meeting featured at the center of the documentary, a participant ponders the percentage of cultural heritage that is being returned to them, arguing that as a people in Benin their inner sense of culture was never really taken away from them. It’s a point that is crucial to our contemporary discussions about the damages of colonialism. In South Africa, I read on a wall I once passed in KwaZulu-Natal: “A man without knowledge of his culture is like a zebra without stripes.” But does that responsibility, to keep one’s history and customs as well as honor them in our daily lives in order to preserve our collective story, really lie with those whose identities have been stripped from them by invading European empires? Or does personal responsibility play a role? Those are questions Diop ponders cinematically and allows the audience to come up with the answers for themselves.

In November of 2021, in the midst of our worldwide pandemic, 26 works of art were returned to Benin from France. The pieces, many royal objects, were looted nearly 130 years earlier, when French Colonel Dodds took Abomey, the kingdom’s capital. Soon after in 1895, Dahomey became part of the French colonial empire. On August 1st, 1960, the country finally gained independence from France and became the Republic of Dahomey. But the stolen artifacts remained in France, at first where Dodds had donated the objects, inside the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (now the Musée de l’Homme). Then from 2000, these were moved and kept at the Musée du Quai Branly. The return is filmed in all its quiet glory by Diop and DP Josephine Drouin Viallard.

At the end of 2020, the French National Assembly passed law no. 2020-1673 on the restitution of cultural property to the Republic of Benin and the Republic of Senegal. This law specifies that the actual restitutions must be made within one year, leading to the return of the 26 objects which are followed in Diop’s stunning, haunting doc. Yet the vast majority of the artifacts looted still remain outside of Benin, begging the question “When?” A year has clearly passed yet most of the artwork remains in French museums, as well as in private collections around the country.

In her press kit for the film, Diop describes the basic idea of writing a non-fiction film. “In documentaries, the writing is first and foremost a point of view, on people or on a situation,” she states, continuing that, “writing begins with the film language that translates (or betrays) your relationship to the world, to other people and to yourself.” From voicing her ‘leading man’ King Ghezo (performed by Haitian writer Makenzy Orcel) in deep zombie-like tones, to filming the people of Benin in all their cultural splendor as they arrive for the opening viewing of the returned treasures, Diop gets it right, and in the process allows us to finally get it right. Proving that old saying that ‘if you’re not part of the solution, you remain part of the problem’.

And we can definitely begin to become part of the solution by watching Dahomey.

Image copyright: Les Films du Bal – Fanta Sy