Review: Adama – Australian Centre for the Moving Image x Melbourne International Film Festival
Never underestimate the power of a child’s imagination. Children often understand much more than we think about our adult world. When confronted with something complex and scary, they seize upon what they do know and invent like crazy to fill in what they don’t know. This is something every great children’s storyteller understands, and something that I certainly hope first-time feature director Simon Rouby never loses sight of. His debut, Adama, takes on the task of showing the horrors of the battle at Verdun, one of the worst of the entire First World War, to a primary school audience. What helps enormously is that his titular protagonist is the same age as the people who will be watching him. Adama (voiced by Azize Diabaté Abdoulaye) is the plucky adventure-loving hero of this particular kids’ animation. He and his family live in a village in West Africa that is surrounded by lush vegetation, freshwater rivers and towering cliffs. His older brother, Samba (Jack Mba), has been his best friend and playmate for as long as he can remember, but now the time has come for Samba to become a man, with the heavy responsibility of putting food on the family table. However, his initiation ceremony is interrupted by the appearance of a seagull flying overhead, a bad omen. The ritual is halted, and this dark sign turns out to be very prophetic. Samba is offered a bag of cold coins by the recruiting “Nassaras,” to travel to France and fight in the army. He accepts, determined to be his own man instead of the man his father has always told him he has to be. He tells Adama, on the night that he runs away, that he’ll understand when it’s his turn to leave childhood behind, and gives him the bag of gold.
Right now, Adama doesn’t understand in the slightest. He hears his parents talking about the terrible fate that awaits all those travelling to the front, but refuses to believe that his brother can’t be saved. He too runs away from the village, taking the gold so he can return it to the Nassaras and have his brother back.
An adult audience might view this as a cute but tragic story of a naive boy on a well-intentioned fool’s errand, but a child probably has no reason to think his plan won’t work. The genius of Rouby’s direction of Julien Lilti’s original story, co-written for the screen by Bénédicte Galup is that, on Adama’s long journey, some of his wonderment will be shared with the young audience while other parts of it will seem very strange to them at first. After he has been walking for some time and arrives at the coast near his village, he thirstily slurps up a mouthful of seawater that he of course very quickly spits back out. This is the very first time that he has seen the ocean, a scene that really drives home to a Western audience how different his life has been from theirs, and yet also how similarly they both would react to seeing something for the first time. The same goes for Adama’s first look at a White person, a mirthless military official on board a ship just like the one that would have taken Samba away, a faceless spectre looking more like a mannequin than a man.
This figure is also rendered in 2D animation, along with the backgrounds and the crowds, while the characters in the foreground are animated in 3D. Any character that emerges from the nameless throng sheds their watercolour texture and gains a striking definition that also highlights their facial imperfections. The digital imaging, combined with the skilful clay sculpting by Michel Lauricella,, gives these characters a sharp yet jerky appearance, one that’s lifelike without trying to be photorealistic.
By the time we, and Adama, get to Verdun, and start seeing bombs, horrific injuries and lethal gas, the adults and teenagers in the room will definitely know that this storyworld is partly a fantasy, but one that rings true on an emotional level. Young children may not necessarily find the story as fanciful, in fact this may well be the most intense film they will have ever seen, but the animation is certainly a good cue for them not to take this at face value. Whilst they will surely identify with Adama, share his frustration with the adults in his life, feel the urgency of his quest and be just as afraid of its many dangers, I think they will also have a sense that everything is going to be alright in the end. They’ll recognise staple kids film characters, like the streetwise sidekick, the eccentric wise old homeless man who is vaguely magical (Pascal N’Zonzi), and that one stuffy grownup that eventually comes around to helping our young hero (Oxmo Puccino, who also writes and performs a beautiful piece of slam poetry that is heard during the end credits). Together, all of them will reassure younger viewers that this is a fable, one where courage and kindness are rewarded, war or no war.
Written by Christian Tsoutsouvas
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