Samba Traoré, 1992

On an uneventful evening at a gas station in Burkina Faso, a service attendant completes a transaction with a passing motorist and begins to enter the office when he is ambushed by two armed men who, after a brief struggle, manage to break free from him and wrest control of the cash box. But before the robbers can make a getaway into the populated street, a second attendant emerges from office and opens fire on the brazen thieves, mortally wounding one of them. Instead of fleeing, the second robber draws his weapon, disarms the attendant, and pries the cash box from the hands of his fallen accomplice before disappearing into the busy main road under the cloak of darkness. A cut to a shot of an idyllic afternoon shows the escaped thief, Samba Traoré (Bakary Sangaré) aboard a rural bus bound for the remote, humble village of his youth: a place that he had left in order to seek out his fortune in the big city of Burkina Faso, and now proudly returns to after a ten year absence with the confident air of untold fortune which, unbeknownst to the curious – but visibly impressed – villagers, has been shamefully snatched on a case full of tainted money. After exchanging a polite glance with the beautiful Saratou (Mariam Kaba) near the outskirts of the village, Samba returns home to find his supporting parents eager to hear of their son’s adventures in the big city – an experience that, as his father observes, seems to have changed him – an intuitive remark that he circumnavigates by playing a well-loved tribal folksong with a flute that had been given to him by his father before leaving home. Meanwhile, to the isolated villagers, fate does seem to have indeed smiled on the prodigal son when he pays a visit to Salif (Abdoulaye Komboudri), a jovial ne’er-do-well and henpecked husband, and successively wins all of his childhood friend’s money (as well as his staked horse and cart) on a series of skin games at the market square. Samba further raises the eyebrows of the villagers when he embarks on a series of extravagant (and conspicuous) purchases: donating a herd of cattle to the farming community, opening a neighborhood bar with Salif, hiring the town’s unemployed laborers to initiate construction on his planned two-storey home. However, Samba’s attempts at self re-invention prove tenuous as he continues to wrestle with recurring nightmares and his family’s increasing suspicions over his ambiguous source of good fortune and unpredictable, volatile behavior.

Samba Traoré is a serene and thoughtful exposition on guilt, human imperfection, and the inescapability of personal conscience. Idrissa Ouedraogo eschews regionalism and cultural specificity in order to create a universal parable on transgression and atonement: archetypal characters, gentle humor, and distilled mise-en-scène that illustrate the mundane (and egalitarian) human rituals of everyday life. From the opening sequence of the night-time armed robbery at the Burkino Faso gas station, Ouedraogo juxtaposes daytime sequences of the open plains and vibrant, borderless village with the concealed, darker elements of Samba’s character: Samba’s diversionary flute-playing for his parents at a campfire, his evasive behavior (and thwarted confession) towards Salif during an all-night drinking binge, his recurring nightmares that betray his fear of discovery. It is this subconscious acknowledgment of guilt that inevitably underlies Samba’s long and difficult journey home: not the triumphant return of a native son, but a humble, irrepressible quest for a return to innocence in search of an elusive – and uncommodifiable – inner peace.

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