Screens at CIFF: 10/12 & 10/13 & 10/16
World premiere: 10 February, 2012, Berlin International Film Festival

The scenario underlying Tey, alternately known as Aujourd'hui - it is not clear at all to me which is the more "official" title, though both words mean "today" in their native language - is too fantastic for realism, and too earthy for fantasy; the kind of scenario that can only really be used in a fable, which as it turns out is precisely what Tey is: a fable dissecting some of the ways that we, as human beings, confront the fact of our own deaths (and to hear director Alain Gomis tell it, it's a post-colonial study of national identity, but I didn't pick up on that at fucking all, and will not bother mentioning it again). It begins with a shot of the sea which dissolves into a shot of red, warm fluidty - an approximation of what you see when you close your eyes and orient your face to a bright light - and we're already dropped squarely into the world of metaphor and symbolism, before we've heard a whisper of plot or met a single human character: the moment of birth, of awakening, of falling asleep, of death. Every one of which correctly applies to the situation at hand, as it turns out.

The actual plot begins with a close-up of a man opening his reddened eyes, and then looking down to a first-person perspective of his toes: it's an image uncommonly close to seeing the feet of a dead body in a morgue, which turns out to be the most appropriate conceivably possible connection to make, given that this man, Satché (Saul Williams), is already dead. Physically alive, sure, but in a film as dense with metaphor as Tey, it doesn't do to split hairs: as we'll learn soon enough, Satché has been made aware that he will die at the end of this day, the moment he falls asleep. The mechanism behind this, as well as the motivation for it, aren't mentioned, or observed even for their conspicuous absence: it simply doesn't matter why Satché is dying, just that he is, and that he has the knowledge of it. And this last day of his life is to be an exploration and celebration of all the little routine things that make up that life: no grand final gestures for this man, just a walk around the city his his very dear friend Sele (Djolof Mbengue), seeing what they shall see.

A brief, vigorous, surprisingly light-hearted movie, Tey does not ventriloquise its theme (appreciate the small moments that make up most of life), but allows it to bubble up through the very real energy of the mise en scène, brightly lit, brightly colored, and full of life. Sometimes the energy is angry, as it is during the film's "biggest" scene, in which Satché and Sele encounter a massive demonstration by an angry citizenry against all the political and social forces that keep them from being free, when cinematographer Christelle Fournier's camera abandons the smooth clarity that has thus far dominated the movie for hectic, ugly handheld work, and the editing speeds up considerably. Sometimes, the energy is intimate and subdued, as it is during the film's most moving scene, when the elderly uncle (Jean Mendy) who will be performing the funerary rites on Satché's corpse demonstrates with gentleness and care exactly what cleaning and manipulation will be involved in preparing the body. Most often, it is noisy and busy energy, but not chaotic.

At the same time, the longer Satché wanders around the city, he becomes increasingly aware of how much of that energy is corrupt: the film starts out with the people he meets excited to be near him and praising his bravery and sacrifice, but the further we get, the more these gestures are seen as largely cynical; reflecting, perhaps, Satché's feeling that he is tired of the world and ready to depart it, as he reaches a symbolic old age and finds himself weary. And this speaks to the one consistent problem I did have with an otherwise strong, moving, and insightful movie. For if Gomis ever really gets himself in trouble it's in pursuing symbolism beyond the point where it makes Tey universal rather than specific, to point where it turns the film into something like an editorial cartoon on death. Using Satché's single day onscreen as a metaphor for birth, youth, adulthood, old age, and death is perfectly fair, if not obligatory given the scenario; but the more specific things get, the more hectoring it feels, like a scene where various community leaders, including one very overtly-placed European, throw a party of sorts for the dying man that becomes the turning point in his realisation that people are more selfish than they seem; it's a clumsy and overloaded "meet the embodiments of various walks of life" moment that's operating with the hamfisted sophistication of medieval morality play. And I am made deeply unhappy by a very late moment involving Satché's children that makes pointlessly overt what the rest of the film had indicated with great delicacy, that this isn't one day, but a whole lifetime.

Nitpicking; savage nitpicking. Tey is a beautiful work, serious without being difficult or unsmiling, and in Williams, an American poet and performance artist, it finds a tremendously ideal lead actor to hang onto during all the twists and turns. The largely silent, reactive Satché might not be a tremendously deep human character on paper - he's an Everyman, and they necessarily must lack definition - but Williams has such a specific presence and finds such subtle ways of expressing his feelings in each new moment, that he pulls the role back from its most airy symbolic excesses, and give us someone to relate to. And that, it turns out, is all it takes for Tey to move from cunning intellectual game to rich depiction of human experience: a little too stiff in patches to call it an unqualified masterpiece, but it's a lovely film nonetheless, and worthy of much better than the complete anonymity that seems to accrue to virtually all films produced in sub-Saharan Africa.