Set in the lead up to Mali’s civil war breaking out in 2012, Marseille-born, French-Malian director Daouda Coulibaly’s frenetic debut feature Wùlu is a pulse-quickening crime thriller. It sees an impoverished young man Ladji (Ibrahim Koma) drawn into an international drug trafficking ring, the proceeds of which lift him and his sister Aminata (Inna Modja) out of grinding poverty.
Screening as part of this year’s Alliance Française French Film Festival, Wùlu takes place in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, where Modja was born and brought up and where she spends half her year, with the rest of the time in Paris.
A guest of the festival, though Modja’s life was very different to Aminata’s, the international musician, visual artist and outspoken women’s rights activist recognises a reality faced by many. “They are real survivors, and I know a lot of people like that, and I am a survivor, so for me it was telling stories about this generation in Mali,” she says.
As a young girl of four-and-a-half years, Modja was taken by the sister of her grandmother and subjected to a brutal circumcision against the will of her parents. “After I moved to Paris I became aware of my own condition and all the effects FGM has on women, so I started fighting against it and raising my voice, so when I had a platform with music, I decided that my activism was going to be stronger, because I have a bigger voice now,” she says. “There is a backlash every time you speak about violence against women and traditions like this, but now I’m strong enough to face it.”
“There is a backlash every time you speak about violence against women and traditions like this, but now I’m strong enough to face it.”
She brings some of that fire to Aminata. “I had to go and find her inside myself,’” Modja says. “And it’s actually the resilience and the fact that she’s a go-getter like I am. We don’t choose the same ways, but she’s a fighter and so am I.”
A complex character, Aminata uses sex work to make ends meet while poor and there’s something of that power dynamic in the way she courts favour once she and Ladji are elevated by the proceeds of the drug money. Her actions are too easy to judge from a place of privilege. “I fell in love with her because at first she seems tough and very mean, but when you know her story, you know that she does what the rough life gave her,” Modja says.
Aminata and Ladji’s lives are certainly transformed as he rises swiftly through the ranks, gaining the favour of Olivier Rabourdin’s murderous boss. A palatial home, fine foods and threads follow, but for one of the siblings, the cost will prove too high. In Bambara, the national language of Mali spoken alongside French, the film’s title refers to a fraternal rite of passage designed to enlighten, with Wùlu being the fifth and final stage, represented by a dog and signifying an understanding of one’s place in life. As Modja says, the film reveals the warts-and-all reality of Ladji’s chosen path. It also lays bare the vested interests behind the drug trade.
“When the war started, I spent a lot of time in Mali with my family, and what is really interesting about this film is that it also speaks about terrorism in the north of Mali and how the terrorists finance what they are doing, and that is something that we haven’t talked a lot about,” she says.
Al-Qaeda have been heavily involved in the illegal trade that sees planes drop off drugs from one corner of the globe only to pass on to another, with corrupt army and government officials looking the other way. Indeed, when Coulibaly started writing the screenplay, he predicted the collapse of the government and the ensuing mayhem only for it to happen while he was halfway through.
“He was like, ‘ok, I cannot anticipate anymore, but I will tell the story of what is going on right now and how it happened and the fact that a lot of young people don’t have opportunities and have to try different ways to survive,” Modja says.
With a Best Feature Film nomination at the Hamburg Film Festival and a First Feature nod at the London Film Festival, Wùlu has also been embraced by the people of Mali, something Modja is particularly proud of. “They feel that we are speaking about something that nobody talks about, and about the youth of Mali with no judgement, because Ladji is not a bad guy.”
Modja will also make an appearance at WOMADelaide, showcasing her desert blues, electronica and hip-hop sound that’s been nurtured by Salif Keïta, the “Golden Voice of Africa,” but she didn’t want to lend her musical talents to Wùlu’s soundtrack. “This was my first movie and I had to audition and then really try to stick to the character as much as I could, and it was such an amazing experience that I wanted to be 100 per cent there and not think about the music.”
Watch Inna Modja music video:
Her personal story and musical journey is part of her next film, a UN-backed documentary by British-Nigerian filmmaker Joseph Adesunloye and executive producer Fernando Meirelles (City of God) called The Great Green Wall. It details a crazy ambitious plan to plant 8,000km of trees to hold back the march of the Sahara desert, while encountering the rich cultures that live along its edge.
“It’s really, really exciting, especially because we are going to speak about a positive wall,” she laughs, in a sly dig at the American President. “It’s about hope and love and people coming together and doing something positive for the world, tackling climate change, and I love Fernando and Joseph. Fernando has opened the door for so many directors around the world to show different stories.”
She’s excited to bring a taste of Mali to Australia with Wùlu. “This film wasn’t easy to make, and to share this story with Australia is amazing for me, being born and raised in Bamako,” Modja says. “It means that no matter where you come from, your dreams are valid and if you work hard, you can get to connect with people from across the world. I’m like on a little cloud of happiness.”
Wùlu is screening at the Alliance Française French Film FestivaI. Book tickets here.
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Watch a scene clip from Wulu: