Part of the Africa In Motion Film Festival

This debut from Malian director Dauoda Coulibaly is an intense crime thriller set in the four years leading up to the start of the Malian Civil War and the overthrow of the Malian government. The narrative centres on van driver Ladji (Ibrahim Koma) who, in search of a better life for himself and his prostitute sister, moves into drug trafficking.

Starting with the transportation of cannabis and cocaine to and from Senegal hidden in cattle meat and fish, Ladji becomes increasingly prominent and wealthy, with his new-found status resulting in not only the accumulation of property, but also the cultivation of a relationship with affluent art dealer Assitan (Mariame N’Diaye). However, Ladji’s success necessitates his growing involvement in larger-scale operations (involving corrupt officials and the likes of Al-Qaeda), as well as increasing guilt over the friends killed in his rise to power. This latter trauma slowly but surely begins to haunt him.

Whilst the plot structure of Wùlu resembles that of Brian De Palma‘s iconic remake Scarface, Coulibaly abandons that film’s stylised, operatic approach in order to provide a realistic account of one man’s involvement in the cocaine crisis which impacted Mali during that four-year period and the psychological impact this has on him.

Coulibaly favours handheld camera shots on location, which create a docu-dramaesque effect that places the viewer in the midst of the action. This particularly comes into play during a crucial scene in Timbuktu, when Ladji and his friends come under attack from armed rebels whilst transporting coke. Coulibaly and cinematographer Pierre Milon shoot the attack from inside Ladji’s van, not only visually placing the audience in the perspective of the dealers, but also intentionally obscuring details of the action in order to create a greater sense of realism than De Palma’s Grand Guignol shootouts.

A similar technique of obscuring details is used in an earlier scene where Ladji is testing the purity of his supply – the entire scene is shot from outside the door, preventing the audience from actually seeing the character taste or snort cocaine. This stylistic choice is effective in avoiding the glamorisation of drug use (which many similar films have come under fire for) whilst keeping the narrative focused on the rise and (psychological) fall of Ladji.

Koma shies away from the twitchy histrionics usually favoured by Hollywood actors when portraying drug dealers who push themselves too far, instead providing a more subdued and naturalistic performance as Ladji. Both Koma and Coulibaly, who also wrote the film’s script, make Ladji’s conflict over his violent and amoral actions more internalised, with Coulibaly representing Ladji’s guilt over the murders he has committed by interspersing brief shots of cattle being slaughtered in an abattoir whenever Ladji remembers them, which also serves as a visual call-back to an earlier scene. Coulibaly’s only misstep involves a brief awkwardly-shot hallucination sequence that Ladji suffers during a lavish party involving one of his dead friends; the device sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise realistic mise-en-scène.

Wùlu is an uncompromising look at one man’s rise to power in a drug trade which led to the war of a nation, whilst skillfully avoiding falling into the trap of glamorising the drug trade favoured by its Hollywood equivalents.