Evicting History

By Adefoyeke Ajao

Film still from BEFORE THE FLIGHT

The architectural masterpieces that dot Abidjan’s landscape take centre stage in Laurence Bonvin’s AVANT L’ENVOL (BEFORE THE FLIGHT, Switzerland), selected for Berlinale Shorts. For 20 minutes, the filmmaker offers an expedition of the current functions of monumental buildings – especially the designs of French architect, Henri Chomette.

The direction of this film is not immediately evident until a seamless montage of scenes moves from one edifice to another, incorporating visuals that proceed from sign posts to the buildings’ interiors – abstractly linking original use with the current usage and state. Was the condition of the structures a reflection of the current state of Ivorien society? Bonvin leaves this unanswered by focusing more on the inanimate.

With the camera concentrating on portraying the various states of the public structures, human dialogue is rendered negligible. When humans do make an appearance in the frame, they are depicted holding informal interactions within the structures. Thus coming off as passive occupants, indifferent to the surrounding nuances of national heritage, but more in tune with the busy streets of Abidjan (which have more human traffic than the monuments). Instances such as students conducting a prayer session in an empty classroom and a casually-dressed lady slouched at an office reception, while laboriously reading a document are just a few examples of the contemporary appropriation of Abidjan’s historical places.

Bonvin evokes a sense of indifference to historical artefacts through the portrayal of deserted masterpieces occupied by self-absorbed bystanders. Even for someone familiar with Ivory Coast’s turbulent history of coups and rebellion, the director does not entirely give a motivation for the significance of the featured buildings. With the various structures being in partial use or in states of dilapidation, only bats seem to be at home within them, roosting and taking flight as they please.

Nostalgia is fleeting in a country characterised by socio-political upheavals, a prevailing scourge on the African continent. Why would people be concerned with buildings from a glorious past when they have more pressing things on their minds? While structures can serve as a reminder of the past, they seem to offer no refuge from the despair of the present. AVANT L’ENVOL is a subtle reminder of what was and what could have been; the anti-climax of post-independence enthusiasm within the African continent.