Damien Froidevaux, Death of the Serpent God, 2014. All rights reserved. At the age of 18 Koumba got involved in a fight with rival teenagers in Paris. In 48 hours, she was deported from France, where she had lived since the age of two, to Senegal, her parents’ country of origin. In her language, habits, way of living, she is French – except that she neglected to request citizenship when she turned 18. She finds herself back in her family village, a remote, rural community far from the life she had known.
The quiet violence of the French expulsion machine is deeply felt by Koumba, turning an upset teenager into an angry woman. She is angry at the injustice of her deportation; at the village folks, who scorn at her ways (some call her “White Koumba” in disdain); and at filmmaker Damien Froidevaux, who followed her quest if not for justice, at least to secure a visa and regain her life in France.
She knows that he is able to fly back to Europe – to his Paris neighbourhood, not too far from the house where her own parents and siblings still live – while she is left to deal with the birth of a first child, the death of another and increasing tension with her relatives in the village. Froidevaux’s ability to leave and come back to Senegal is used as a narrative device that allows the film to move at a brisk pace as it follows five years in Koumba’s life. But Froidevaux’s freedom of movement appears, quite rightly, as the other side of the racist and exclusionary logic that made Koumba’s situation a common occurrence in France. This is not lost on Koumba, who regularly points out that the filmmaker couldn’t possibly understand her situation.
Since Koumba is so aware of Froidevaux’s camera, an interesting dynamic emerges where she chastises the filmmaker, calls him selfish or openly insults him in Soninke, the local language he can’t understand. In a telling scene, she derides him for forcing her to walk around the village so he can film Koumba in her new surroundings – she’s holding her young son on her back, in the heat of the day, wandering around sunburnt fields. “How is walking around these fields going to help me?” she asks. She might have not intended to appeal to the watcher, but one feels angry that her story – or any documentary – has to be told through such absurd staging.
Damien Froidevaux, Death of the Serpent God, 2014. All rights reserved. But as she progressively alienates local people and her family, Froidevaux seems to be her only unconditional supporter. He helps Koumba to consult with immigration lawyers and try to expedite lengthy administrative procedures. She doesn’t exactly warm up to him, but realizes he is her only link – besides the occasional phone call to her family – to where she feels she really belongs. Perhaps Koumba’s defiant attitude towards the world is the self-fulfilling expression of her loneliness, stuck in a world of which she doesn’t share the codes nor wishes to. But this attitude is certainly an attempt to regain some control over her life, her previous path, desires and ambitions having been brutally derailed. In Soninke folklore, there is the Serpent God, who controls the life of humans as pawns. How can she respond to the other villagers, who tell her to give up, that it is useless to fight back?
Koumba does not attempt to be someone she is not – say, a village woman or a polite, amiable person - nor does Froidevaux attempt to depict her like that. This is to the credit of the film, and perhaps its greatest achievement as Koumba becomes a deeply endearing character despite the constant abuse and anger. A strong woman, ready to challenge circumstances that would have crushed any other 18-year-old; a young mother, raising a child on her own; and a remarkable if unlikely hero. By the end of the documentary, Koumba has moved towards some form of internal peace, or maybe resignation, as her visa application procedure is still pending.
The transformation is subtle, fascinating. Koumba has become quieter, her eyes seem to see far further than ours. She has become more selective in her indignation. She accepts rather than rejects the local habits and customs. She is seen playing football with the village’s children, and seems to be on friendly terms with the relatives whom she previously despised. But she has also understood that however hard she might try, her place is not there. As the film ends she moves to Dakar, a step closer, perhaps, to her old life in France.
Death of the Serpent God is not a film about politics – it has no interest in exploring the details of the French administrative deportation system, to evoke other cases, or to provide a complete account of Koumba’s legal battles. The absurdity of Koumba’s story is enough of a demonstration: in what world does a childish mistake turn into a 5-year exile (and counting)? In this, it is a deeply political film, painting an honest and touching portrait of Koumba as one of the invisible, those who have no voice in political debates about deportation, immigration, citizenship, and yet are the most personally affected.
Death of the Serpent God is screening at the Open City Documentary Festival on 18 June 2015.