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Review: Zaho Zay


- French filmmaker Maéva Ranaïvojaona revisits her Madagascan roots and conceives a compact hybrid of documentary elements and stylish, nightmarish fiction

Review: Zaho Zay

A Magalasy woman is sitting in front of a run-down house, her gaze interlocking with the dry vastness of the withered jungle in front of her. “I am waiting to see you again”, a French voice-over whispers, as the camera gazes into the distance, as if expecting some kind of deliverance to emerge from the thicket. “You” — that is the unnamed, mysterious father figure. A criminal and possible murderer, who will be imprisoned at the same establishment where the daughter is working as a prison guard. An unavoidable confrontation waiting to happen. A conflict and a curiosity that take hold of the woman’s thoughts.

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“Zaho zay” (“it’s me”) is the expression the inmates shout each morning as they assemble in the prison yard. It is also the name given to this experimental feature by French filmmaker Maéva Ranaïvojaona and her Austrian counterpart Georg Tiller, showing in the Features section of the 58th Viennale. Ranaïvojaona, herself of Malagasy origins, has made the festival round prior with two shorts, Phasme (2016) and Domicile (2012), as well as a producer for Overnight Flies (2016). Her work has been awarded at festivals such as Rotterdam and Cannes. Tiller is known for his work as a director, author, and producer of contemporary auteur cinema.

While Zaho Zay [+see also:
film profile
captivates with its mix of realism and fantasy, its origin lies in another project that Ranaïvojaona and Tiller were working on in Madagascar, during Ranaïvojaona’s first return to the island since her childhood. Originally a short about prison life, the footage was repurposed for Zaho Zay. With Ranaïvojaona being a child of the island and its culture, and yet alien to it, the film’s editing shows a multifaceted view. A divided being, familiar with her surroundings as well as estranged from them.

At its core, the movie escapes any coherent synopsis. The narrative strings are short and barely interconnected. The documentary footage of prison inmates, children in the streets, workers in cane fields as well as local celebrations merge with fantastic, nightmarish visions of the man that the woman identifies as her father (played by Ranaïvojaona’s uncle). Binding these elements together is the woman’s voice-over, whose narration and fantasies give the images a loose arc.

With monologues written by Malagasy poet Jean-Luc Raharimanana, the visual and acoustic elements of the film form a symbiosis of visual and lyrical poetry. Raharimanana, who often addresses the situation of poverty and corruption in his homeland, adds a critical social reflection to the ongoing themes. “How can one be when this country smashes her own children”, the woman wonders.

The surrounding crime and devastation mirror the image of her father. “You, my father, are the elusive one.” Paired with these words are visuals of the father throwing his dice, by which he determines his next victim. Blood is dripping from a razor blade in a sink and off the wounds of a victim in the cane fields. However, at a later point, father and daughter are seen peacefully sitting together, munching on some fruit.

These dream sequences never lead to the payoff of seeing the father step into the actual realms of the prison. Instead, they leave to wonder: is the father simply a ghost? A repressed emotional trauma that continues to have a grip on her? Or is there really a dangerous man out there, throwing dice to randomly determine his victims? It is with the same randomness, the movie seems to say, that the country operates. A situation so dire, even the jungle from the film’s opening sequence cannot abstain from going up in flames.

This mix of nightmarish fantasies and documentary observations may sometimes feel a bit wobbly in execution and direction, but Ranaïvojaona and Tiller manage to offer an unabashed glimpse into the life and the hardships of Madagascar’s people, a world usually so elusive to most of the film’s viewers.

Zaho Zay was produced by Subobscura Films, Katrafay Films and Tomsa Films. It is distributed by Subobscura Films.

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