Cannes 2021 review: Aya (Simon Coulibaly Gillard)

Located just south of the mainland of Côte d’Ivoire is the island of Lahou, which serves as the setting for Aya, the ambitious, socially charged drama by Simon Coulibaly Gillard. The film is an unconventional coming-of-age story centering on the titular character, a young woman caught in the difficult space between adolescence and adulthood. Her plight is not helped by the growing unease of her fellow islanders, as Lahou is about to be “devoured by the sea”, a result of the changing climate. While some embrace this as a necessary change, as part of some celestial plan, others are not particularly keen on losing their homes, Aya herself included. Rejecting the pleas of her family and friends, she refuses to take part in their efforts to leave the island and start a new life on the mainland, believing that this island is the only home she will ever know, and doing everything she can to ensure that she remains there. Aya is a powerful film that tells a harrowing story of an idyllic paradise that is rapidly deteriorating as a result of the consequences of man-made endeavours, which are intertwined with the story of a young protagonist venturing into the treacherous waters of womanhood while desperately trying to hold onto some semblance of the past in the process.

At the heart of this film is Aya, played magnificently by newcomer Marie-Josée Degny Kokora, who immediately establishes herself as a sincerely talented young performer. She serves as our guide through this film, our understanding of this world filtered through her perspective, which is still developing as she goes from innocence to maturity. The name ‘Aya’ is taken from the Adinkra symbol for a fern, which represents endurance and defiance, an appropriate description for this rebellious young woman. Throughout the film we are witness to the intense collision between the encroaching sea that threatens to engulf an entire island and the stubborn conviction of a teenager who refuses to leave her home, foolishly holding onto her fervent belief that she can somehow withstand the forces of nature that have guided her community’s existence for as long as her island has been inhabited. She is a defiant soul, firmly standing her ground while being aware that it is rapidly eroding beneath her feet, which does not deter her from going against the inevitable.

Aya centres on the finite nature of time, presented in the form of gorgeous fragments of a temporary existence, with the knowledge that the stunning beaches that cover the island are very soon going to cease to be the boundary that protects these islanders from the harsh waters surrounding them. Time is fleeting, and these characters are witnessing both a physical and metaphorical erosion of their homeland. Inevitably, like all the possessions left behind, the memories of Lahou and the myriad of lives that populated it in the past will be lost to the sea. For some these days are spent salvaging everything they can, but for Aya resistance and fervent protest is a method of preserving her home and its legacy, even if she knows it is a fool’s errand to bet against nature. She struggles to imagine a life beyond this island – and even when she is finally immersed in the urban space coveted by many of her peers, she feels like an outsider, continuously drawn back to the mysteries of the ocean which is both a source of despair and comfort for the uncertain young woman as she wades through the waters of her journey to adulthood. For Aya it is not as simple as moving to another island or the mainland, since there is a special connection she feels towards Lahou that cannot be replicated.

In the construction of this beautiful film the island represents stability and traditions, all of them rooted in the past – the director makes sure that the story reflects the aching melancholy felt by many of these characters as they gradually make arrangements to leave their homes behind and venture into uncharted territory. Whether it be in the several scenes where we witness the exhumation of the deceased so they too can join their descendants in their new home (representing an active refusal to entirely abandon the past and the legacy of the ancestors), or the harrowing sight of villagers tearing down their homes in anticipation of the inevitable flooding, the film is a carefully-curated series of moments shown through the perspective of a young woman watching the literal dismantling of the surroundings she called her home. Much of the emotional content of Aya is represented in the use of both these stunning images and music, which is shown to be the universal language, each character expressing themselves better through song than in words. The use of diegetic music – traditional songs, gospel hymns or energetic beats – proves that every chant is a prayer of hope and a tool of catharsis, giving us insights into the inner state of these characters as they come to terms with both social and ecological changes. As is the case with the stunning visual palette, the use of song contributes to the increasingly melancholy nature of the film, and as the singing voices become more distant and the island disappears over the horizon, the silence of uncertain times only gets closer and becomes more intimidating.

The island of Lahou is not only the core location for Aya, but is so well-represented by the director it becomes a character in its own right, with the beautiful locations and vibrant portrayal of its people giving the viewer invaluable insights into the culture. In this regard Aya serves two purposes – it is a heartbreaking character study of a young woman coming to terms with the fragility of life, as well as a deeply moving portrait of an island and its people, built on the foundation of community values. Gillard represents both sides of this story with a very tender and affectionate touch, portraying the uncertainty of the future and how it impacts the psychological state of the residents of this rapidly disappearing island, some of whom are more than willing to abandon their previous lives for the sake of survival, while others are far more reluctant to start afresh. The entire community is in flux as they patiently await the floods that will finally envelop their beautiful paradise. As we see throughout the film, the tide causes destruction to those who are not equipped with the knowledge of the volatility of nature, but it can also bring change and renewal. The never-ending ebb and flow of the sea is something that should be both admired and feared, not as our enemy, but rather as a stark representation of the unpredictability of life, and the opportunity of a new beginning without forgetting the past.