Pulp Fiction: Saloum (Jean Luc Herbulot, 2021)

A movie whose deep hidden subtext is "this movie rocks."

Pulp Fiction: Saloum (Jean Luc Herbulot, 2021)
Each of these men has been styled for maximum radness.

Genre is a great way to bridge cultural knowledge gaps. The post-Get-Out “elevated horror” discourse, and the idea that all horror has the obligation to perform metaphorical politics wherein the monster is [PICK ONE: trauma; gender norms; abuse; colonialism] has made this idea feel a little cheugy. Not every horror movie is Night of the Living Dead and not every horror movie has to be; that would be boring. Sometimes a zombie is just a zombie. 

That said: if you are going to watch something set in a culture you don’t know well — if the social norms and recent history and knowledge base of the characters are all going to be, literally, foreign to you — then filmmakers aiming for a global audience can make one of two choices. Either they can spend a lot of the time explaining the culture, and make the world building part of the appeal (see the recent Shogun adaptation on Hulu, which did a good job of this). Or it can skip all that and just add a genre element. Aliens; monsters; heists; these are stories that cut across culture, narratives we already know how to watch, and we can infer the rest as we go using context clues. 

Saloum is set in Senegal, in 2003. It spends approximately no time explaining what a dumb white-guy American (me) ought to know about the culture or history of Senegal, or how things were different in 2003 than they are now. The script assumes a lot of knowledge on the viewer’s part, particularly when it comes to the treatment of child soldiers — it references horrors that are apparently so widely understood none of the characters bothers to spell them out. (Not that they really have to — “child soldiers bad” feels like a safe assumption.) It’s clearly a movie with politics on its mind; the characters name-drop “post-colonialism” and quote Thomas Sankara. Yet I could not safely tell you what those politics are — like RRR, the far-right Hindu nationalist movie that Americans thought was a far-left anti-imperialist masterpiece, I could be taking away a message that’s completely the opposite of the one intended by the film. 

None of that matters, because Saloum fucking rocks. It whips ass. It slaps. It makes me use slang terms I don’t entirely understand and will embarrass myself by using. My initial notes for the review were, in their entirety, “Saloum is a banger,” typed at the top of a blank document. I had just a tremendous amount of fun watching this movie. It’s what Tarantino movies would feel like if I actually liked Tarantino. It’s what Tarantino movies would be like, if Quentin Tarantino were a director, and not just an off-putting pile of racial and sexual fetishes in human form. 

Much of the fun of Saloum is the fact that it appears to be at least three or four different movies  over the course of its run time — the assumed genre of the movie pivots rapidly and unpredictably from moment to moment. You don’t know where it’s going, and for maximum fun, you shouldn’t have any clue, so go watch it before you read the rest of the review. Here’s a little song while you wait.

Fun fact: A tree fell on my office while I was writing this!

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