A US-based film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer.
PRISON: A picturesque hybrid documentary within a hopelessly overcrowded prison in Madagascar.

(Translated from English by Google Gtranslate)

Screening as part of the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival «First Lights» programme, Zaho Zay is as complex and richly layered as it is troubling and compelling. An Austria/France/Madagascar co-production from an Austrian male director and a French female filmmaker of Malagasy origin, this unusual hybrid is not quite doc, not quite fiction, neither shamelessly colonialist in its gaze, nor entirely free from the outsider’s POV. Taking its title from the roll call response («It’s me!») given by inmates in the real «Madagascar prison where much of the film is set, the experimental project is also less focused on the men (and, towards the end, women) behind the proverbial bars than in the visual springboard their faces and bodies provide for the daydreamy narrative (which is accompanied by a lyrical voiceover, written by a French/Malagasy writer).


Our offscreen guide is a fictional female prison guard whose father, we learn early on, murdered his own brother before abandoning her as a child. The anonymous narrator fantasizes that one day her uncle will show up among the lawbreakers she’s tasked to watch over – a fantasy that soon takes her (and us) on a journey throughout the rural countryside, trailing the wandering nameless killer and his ever-present dice, which he rolls to decide the fate of his victims. And to complicate the situation, that lethal father is played by none other than the real-life uncle of one of the filmmakers, Maéva Ranaïvojaona. Which, of course, implicates the team behind the lens in the tale they’ve weaved regardless of whether what we’re seeing is completely fabricated or touching on any «truth.»

And here’s where the complications get a bit thornier – at least for this Western viewer. For when Ranaïvojaona and her Austrian co-director Georg Tiller embarked on Zaho Zay after visiting Madagascar – a country Ranaivojaona hadn’t set foot in since she was a young girl – on a location scout, they subsequently found themselves working on an NGO-commissioned short about prisons, and that footage ultimately made its way into this film. Hence the real inmates.

Zaho Zay-documentary-post2
Zaho Zay, a film by Maéva Ranaivojaona and Georg Tiller

Another brick

But problematically, these prisoners, in Zaho Zay at least, are rendered soulless characters without backstories, serving instead as a convenient canvas for a fictional tale. Nevertheless, the absorbing story is certainly brought to life by evocative VO poetry and an intoxicating sound design; and by exquisitely framed images of the Madagascar landscape. Not to mention, most effectively, by scenes showcasing the traveling criminal whose face seems to mirror all the angles of the wondrous natural world that surrounds him. Still, he himself has no inner life.

these prisoners…are rendered soulless characters

Adding to this uncomfortable fact, the overhead shots capturing not the killer but the condemned as a sea of bodies, forced to forever swim in an inhumanely overcrowded container, proved to me most memorable. This is some striking cinematography for sure, bringing to mind echoes of Bosch. Which is also precisely the dilemma. For when humanity becomes a sea, the flesh-and-blood individual retreats. Rendered as nothing more than an unimportant speck that I could almost forget in this cinematic reverie, each one just another brick in a far-off prison wall.

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