In 1953, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Ghislain Cloquet produced Statues Also Die, one of the fiercest and most lucid indictments of white imperialism ever captured on film. Commissioned by the magazine Présence Africaine, it sought to dissect Western attitudes toward African art. The 30-minute short did not begin as an anti-colonial project but became one along the way, informed by the belittling treatment that antiquities from the continent had received across French cultural institutions since their plundering under colonial rule. Why, for a start, was African art routinely confined at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris––an ethnographic museum––while Greek or Assyrian pieces found their place at the Louvre? An arresting montage of statues and their visitors swelled into a much larger critique of the systematic oppression of Black culture and Black bodies, with a third act considering the exploitation of Black athletes and musicians in the States. That you might have never heard of it is hardly surprising. The short was swiftly banned upon release, then shipped back out in a truncated version, and finally approved by the censor in its unabridged cut in 1995––a staggering 42 years since it first screened. (It’s now available on YouTube.) “An object dies when the living glance trained upon it disappears,” Jean Négroni’s voiceover prophesied at the start, “and when we disappear, our objects will be confined to a place where we send black things: to the museum.” 

In 2021––nearly 70 years since that film’s release, and 130 since they were looted by French troops––26 royal items from the Kingdom of Dahomey were returned to what is now the Republic of Benin. In its barest terms, Mati Diop’s Dahomey tells the story of their repatriation. It kicks off with these stupefying treasures being prepared for their homecoming in the basement of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, and it ends in Benin, where they’re finally displayed to throngs of local dignitaries, and where students from the University of Abomey-Calavi turn their restitution into an occasion for an incendiary debate around the meaning of the act itself. But in Diop’s hands, what might have unfolded as a mere chronicle of a journey morphs into something far more electrifying and disturbing. Her thunderous new film exists in conversation with Resnais and Marker’s in the sense that it shares the same poetics and preoccupations. These are both projects concerned with the way works of art can hold together a whole culture, with how riveting but also how ethereal that relationship may be––what happens to them when we stop looking, what happens to us when they gaze back. By the time the royal items have made their way home, Dahomey has traversed continents and genres to become something else entirely––a ghost story. 

How else to account for its protagonist? Diop, who wrote the script, singles out one of the royal items––number 26, a wooden statue of King Ghezo, who ruled Dahomey in the mid-1800s. It’s the artifact that speaks (in the indigenous Fon language, voiced by Makenzy Orcel) and guides us through the odyssey in a voiceover made all the more sinister by sound designers Corneille Houssou, Nicolas Becker, and Cyril Holtz, whose work locks us into the object’s own headspace––a cavernous region unmoored from time. Is this the afterlife, or are we still trapped in what Ghezo calls, with proud scorn, “the caverns of the civilized world?” Picking up the Golden Bear at the 2024 Berlinale, Diop said when she first imagined what restitution might look like she heard a sound; in Dahomey sound is paramount to heighten the feeling of unease, as is the score by Wally Badarou and Dean Blunt to amplify the trip’s spiritual dimension. In a film that’s about liberation as much as compensation, music thrums through it as a freeing force, bestowing a sense of majesty and a voice to objects that had been stripped of both. 

Which is not to say Dahomey anthropomorphizes its inanimate “hero.” Yes, for all intents and purposes, Ghezo’s statue serves as a kind of narrator, and cinematographer Joséphine Drouin Viallard tracks its shipment with a near-forensic attentiveness––as if what was sent back wasn’t an antiquity but a body. Yet the idol is never made human. Its first-person voice remains uncanny throughout, its perspective non-anthropocentric. In some fundamental sense, this isn’t a character so much as a consciousness whose restless floating refracts some of the film’s questions around what restitution might mean––the kind of rehabilitation it promises, a re-rooting of people into their own History. 

Clocking in at little over an hour, Dahomey dedicates its last third to articulating those concerns with astonishing force. As Beninese of all walks of life stroll before the artifacts’ new home in the presidential palace, open-mouthed with wonder, Diop turns to a meeting of university students. It’s an extraordinary sequence and masterclass in editing; distilling a debate that must have stretched hours, Gabriel Gonzalez serves up a montage of exchanges around the significance of the objects’ homecoming: whether or not this is really the historical milestone the country’s press is trumpeting it as; what their repatriation means; who did the artifacts belong to when they were stolen, and who do they belong to now. In what’s possibly the film’s most engrossing moment, Gonzalez cuts the discussion with shots of young Beninese listening to it on their phones and laptops around the city. One gets the feeling that a whole generation is taking part in a debate that has less to do with a few antiquities being handed back than with the kind of future these students will have to chart for themselves and their country.

Toward the discussion’s end, a young woman says it’s insulting that one should think 90 percent of Benin’s cultural heritage is still abroad. “Our immaterial heritage”––the traditions, stories, and customs that keep the country together––“are still here.” It’s a lesson powering the whole film. As reimagined by Dahomey and the passionate voices echoing throughout, a nation’s heritage can’t be reduced to material riches. It’s a breathing, malleable realm, far harder to describe but no less concrete for that. “An object dies when the living glance trained upon it disappears.” Dahomey begins where Statues Also Die ended, wondering what remains of our identities when the things those cling onto suddenly disappear––then resurface from oblivion. To this, Diop offers no clear answers. But in the heart-shaking passion of that university debate, in those students’ resolute commitment to reappropriate their own narratives, she finds something rarer still: a snapshot of a generation for whom this isn’t just the story of a restitution. It’s a resurrection.

Dahomey premiered at the 2024 Berlinale and will be released by MUBI.

Grade: A-

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