Feature Documentary Reviews

The Yellow Queen (2021) – 4 stars

Director: Lucio Arisci

Cast: Christian Koulibaly, Drissa Kanambaye, Thiam El Bashir

Running time:  1hr 27mins

Walter Rodney, a great historian of European colonisation and under-development of Africa, once wrote: Europeans did not build railways so that Africans might visit their friends. Rodney’s insight kept coming to mind when I was watching Lucio Arisci’s idiosyncratic, anarchic film, The Yellow Queen.

In a brave and to some extent successful attempt to combine two genres (a road movie and a political documentary), Arisci shows us an episode in the working life of Christian Koulibaly, a middle-aged German man. We follow Christian Koulibaly, whose trade is exporting second-hand buses from Europe to the west African country of Mali. After snapping up a bus in, of all places, Bayreuth, he hits the road.

He travels through Europe, to Africa by the ferry at Tangier, through Morocco, down the Atlantic coast of Western Sahara and Mauretania, and then hooks left through the Sahel to cross the Malian border – finally arriving at Bamako, astride the Niger river. He has covered 4,500 kilometres in 19 days. It is an astonishing journey, beautifully filmed by Arisci and his colleague, Giovanni Franzoi – while the equally well-shot scenes in Bamako are credited to Michele Cattani and Arnes Gilles. Presumably Arisci and Franzoi were overcome by exhaustion by this stage.

The format Arisci uses has Christian speaking to camera, from the wheel of the bus, giving us a commentary on the journey and his thoughts on political economy and religion. A complex character, he comes across as a Beat philosopher for our times – a latter day Neal Cassidy.

A key factor in how you relate to this movie will be dictated by how much you can take of Christian as he takes centre stage for the entirety of the journey sequences – less so after we reach Bamako as he is off partying. I learned a lot from his analysis of the mindsets of European travellers to Africa – the simple racists, the knowledge imperialism of the NGOs (we have to teach Africans how to live) and those, presumably including Christian and us, the audience, who want to learn from the people they meet. Though not quite a Kurtz, there is a darker side to his philosophy – when travelling through the Western Sahara (illegally occupied by the Moroccan state in a manner similar to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank) he remarks – it’s finished…anyway I’m for Morocco. This is Trumpian and self-serving – Christian needs his Moroccan contacts for his trade to flourish. I was also repulsed by one of Christian’s friend’s (Pepe, a Catalan living in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital) apologia for domestic slavery in Mauretania – it benefits the enslaved…well of course it does. But credit to the filmmakers for showing us the contradictions within the worldviews of the protagonists.

Meanwhile, Arisci counterposes Christian’s musings with his own take about how the trip is going – this works extremely well as Arisci has a charming voice with a fine timbre. The range of the dialogue expands when the protagonists reach Bamako where Arisci follows two young local activists, Drissa Kanambaye and Thiam El Bashir, as they organise demonstrations against corruption and misgovernment. They sketch out for us the cataclysm that has hit the Sahel since the Western powers orchestrated the 2011 overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi – this works to develop the themes that Arisci has explored earlier as to Western colonial and post-colonial exploitation of Africa and its peoples. I was particularly struck by Kanambaye’s characterisation of the West’s role in Gaddafi’s ouster as that of a pyromaniac firefighter.   

Meanwhile, the bus takes on a life of its own. The titular Yellow Queen is not just any bus – it’s a Mercedes 0303, the best bus ever made – capable of journeying for two million kilometres. The Queen has worked German roads for twenty years, travelling 400,000 kilometres – so the Malian buyers will be purchasing a machine that can work for another thirty years – a fine example of recycling arbitrage. The Queen is painted a vibrant shade of yellow and has a slightly bizarre (to anglophone audiences) slogan painted on the side – Poser Bus. This is coupled with an apposite tagline, given the impending journey: Menschen in Bewegung, people in motion.

I enjoyed Arisci’s transparency as to the making of the movie – unlike many documentaries – nothing is hidden from the audience. We learn that Arisci has had to take a third stake in paying for the bus and the alcohol fuelled mayhem of the journey is honestly portrayed. We see the team’s support vehicle, a small drab green Mercedes van – the dowdy sibling to the splendour of The Queen – this nicely clears up the nagging question we all ask when watching a road movie as to how did the filmmakers get the shots of movement through the landscape?

Arisci neatly blends the anarchy of the human relationships on the bus with stunning shots of the human and natural environment it is moving through – so that the movie has an almost hallucogenic feel. Non sequiturs abound – a co-driver is dropped off at Valencia, a sister’s boyfriend and various hitchhikers come aboard – all without explanation. We are in a dreamworld. Arisci is aided by the strangeness of stops that Christian chooses to make on the way. Christian is a trader – it is as though we are back in the Braudelian world of the 16th century merchant – Christian knows the value of a commodity in a particular time and space.

Martina Moor does an excellent job as editor. In terms of technical accomplishment, the stand-out scene is near the start – when Christian is about to buy the bus. Christian is presumably operating the controls to test everything is working OK, but we do not see him – all we see are various parts of the bus come to life as if by magic – a headlamp lighting up or a door opening and closing. The camera then focuses in on the engine – it has its cover raised. The cover is flat and reveals a space similar to a huge flatscreen TV and we see clearly all the working parts of the machinery. A thing of beauty and simplicity, we understand why this bus is sought after in Mali – it is so fucking easy to repair – just reach in and away you go. The bus moves off and, in a piece of trompe-l’œil editing, we see a Bamako street scene – we have arrived at our destination before the journey has begun. Importantly, we have engaged with a machine as lead character – an enchanting piece of cinema.   

I was slightly disappointed with the soundtrack which is rudimentary. We have a snatch of Beethoven’s Fifth to underline the roots of the European cultural baggage for the drive through Bavaria, then the only extended sequence is a fine piece of Malian music with gutsy tempo and interlacing rhythms toward the end. The latter made me feel what we might have missed. Bus journeys, whether we take them as passengers or are watching a movie with other people taking them, really do benefit from some musical accompaniment to provide drive and momentum.

My second criticism is more fundamental. Arisci has attempted to make a laudable awareness raising documentary to bring to the world’s attention the consequences of Western actions in the Sahel. This conflicts with the fact he has set it in the context of a Boys’ Own adventure story. All the protagonists on the bus are male. The activists we meet in Bamako are all men. Almost all the women we meet are portrayed as mere appendages to their men. We never hear an articulate, female voice. There is one bizarre exception when deep in the Mauritanian desert, the bus stops and picks up two hitchhikers – an older and a younger woman. The young woman sports a décolletage that would be at home in a British night club in the early hours of a December morning. Christian remarks to the woman that maybe it would be wise to wear something else. When the women are dropped off in Nouakchott, they are both wearing twin red polka dot blouses with high collars presumably taken from Christian’s store of trade goods. That’s it, no explanatory narrative – the scene adds to the hallucinatory atmosphere but highlights the film’s total incuriosity toward the lives of women.

I am sure that the 0303 bus will find a niche in the sub-culture alongside Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and Ken Kesey’s Prankster Bus but sadly it will be in that part of the cultural universe marked Men Only. My advice would be that, if you are going to make a film that is intended to shake people up and make the world a better place, it is wise not to ignore the majority of humans living on the planet.

With that being said, in The Yellow Queen, Arisci has proved to be a brave and resourceful filmmaker, whose work I am genuinely excited to see more of. There is so much on offer amid this film’s anarchic insights, and it was also great to hear in its endnote that The Yellow Queen is now running a regular route serving Segou, Sikasso and Bamako – enabling Africans to visit their friends. People in Motion.

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