Dahomey: Mati Diop’s otherworldly documentary gives voice to looted African artefacts

Diop charts the repatriation of 26 precious stolen artefacts from Paris to Benin in a ghostly ‘fantasy documentary’ that interrogates colonial legacies.

Dahomey (2024)
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival

In this bewitching work of speculative documentary, French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop takes on a hot topic of the culture wars – the decolonisation of European museums – and weaves from it a beguiling meditation on identity, ancestry and the weight of history. In 2021, 26 objects were transported from a museum in Paris to Cotonou in Benin. The treasures had been stolen by 19th century French troops from the West African Kingdom of Dahomey, but now 130 years later, they are returning home. In Dahomey, Diop follows the objects on this journey, travelling with them as they are packed in crates and flown to the presidential palace in Benin, where they are greeted by excited visitors hungry to see their heritage on display at last.

Much of this footage is low key and largely wordless. Diop often leaves us to observe in quiet, fixed shots, looking on as items are packed and unpacked, carefully wrapped and measured. The most spectacular artefacts are the bocios, carved wooden effigies depicting zoomorphic creatures – a shark’s body on human legs, a half bird/half man creature – and a majestic statue of King Gezo, ruler of Dahomey, standing with one arm raised in a gesture of defiance. The contrast between the beauty and age of these objects and the sanitised modernity of the institutions in which they are kept yields some curious images: King Gezo lying face down, swathed in white polystyrene; men in white coats inspecting the statues for damage, brows furrowed. Given as so much of the film takes place inside museums, there’s a meta-element to all this observing, as if the staff and visitors themselves are also exhibits, and we are the ones looking at them from the other side of the glass.

Dahomey (2024)

Like the bocios, Diop’s film is itself a hybrid creature, a self-described “fantasy documentary” in which cinema verité is yoked to something stranger, more magical. In her debut fiction feature Atlantiques (2019), Diop depicted a Dakar haunted by angry spirits, the vengeful ghosts of drowned migrants killed attempting to flee poverty to western Europe. In Dahomey, Diop channels a similar otherworldly energy, giving voice to the looted objects as they narrate their journey home. In interludes dispersed throughout the film, a deep voiceover can be heard over a black screen, a voice which speaks of the loneliness of captivity and displacement  (“I journeyed so long in my mind, it was so dark in this foreign place…everything is so strange, so far removed from this land I saw in my dreams”). By allowing the objects to speak for themselves, Diop reminds us of their original spiritual purposes, highlighting how far removed they have become from the cultures in which they were created. This sense of dimensions beyond our knowledge is heightened through Wally Badarou and Dean Blunt’s eerie music: echoing synths and half-heard ancestral voices which seem to carry with them a sense of timelessness and dislocation.

Another crucial element of Dahomey lies in the connections Diop makes between this colonial history and present day African identity. In one electrifying sequence, one of the few to feature extended dialogue, a group of students in Benin debate the value of returning these treasures. Some see the restitution as a watershed for the country, speaking of how moved they are to finally be able to see treasures they read about in school textbooks on display again in their own country. Others draw attention to the political machinations at work, the opportunity this presents for France to push a diplomatic agenda in its former colonies. The students cynicism is well earned; the 26 artefacts represent only a fraction of the estimated 7,000 objects looted from Benin which remain in French institutions. What is thrillingly animated by this debate is the profound meaning that these fragments of history represent to this next generation of young Beninese, as they seek to carve their own identity away from euro-centric propaganda and colonial legacies.

On the streets of Cotonou, those legacies are everywhere, visible in the fleeting glimpses of posters advertising skin whiteners and in the blend of western and African fashions sported by passersby. A shot towards the end of Dahomey that shows the lapping waters of the Atlantic Ocean serves as a gentle callback to Atlantiques – a reminder of the many people (and objects) who have made that journey across those waters against their will over the centuries, most never to return.