Sydney Film Festival 2022: SALOUM & BURNING DAYS

After two years of online festivals, cancellations, and one of the craziest Oscar ceremonies in recent history, the Sydney Film Festival has returned in full for its 69th edition, unleashing a wicked blend of Cannes premieres, homegrown tentpoles, indie discoveries, and the best discoveries from around the globe, a massive event whose various program strands include an Official Competition slate, International Documentaries, and First Nations just to name a few. In anticipation for this major comeback, I had the privilege of previewing two of its most anticipated titles: Jean Luc Herbulot‘s Saloum from the “Freak Me Out” program and Official Competition entry Emin Alper‘s Burning Days.

Saloum (Jean Luc Herbulot)

Sydney Film Festival 2022 Report: SALOUM & BURNING DAYS
Saloum (2021) – source: Shudder

Bullets fly, a hefty case of gold is stolen and three arcane mercenaries flee from another defiled village – and that’s all before the credits even roll on Jean Luc Herbulot’s bloody but breathless genre-bender Saloum. Determined to not let one radiant frame go to waste, this frenzied Senegalese sophomore feature may just be the best damn horror film this year – when it’s finished being the best Western of 2022.

With the blood of John Carpenter in its veins and the weapons of Clint Eastwood on their hips, Saloum starts off with a literal bang, as we meet the “Bangui Hyenas”, a trio of mythical mercenaries led by the charismatic Chaka (Yann Gael) and his two associates Rafa (Roger Sallah) and Midnight (Mentor Ba) whose latest job entails them transporting Mexican drug lord Felix (Renaud Farah) across state lines before the government can get to them. A plane malfunction has them hiding in the sacred river-side territory of Sine-Saloum Delta, where their three-day stint to forage for fuel and spare parts will have them uncovering past secrets about themselves, the community, and the land itself.

This description may seem vague, but part of Saloum’s joy is its gradual unfurling of surprises, this is not merely a From Dusk Till Dawn with fresh studs as its turn towards the supernatural is just one of its many twists, and the way that Herbulot weaves these various story-lines and tones with ease is a frankly astounding effort, putting its American contemporaries to shame. From its idiosyncratic costume designing to its clever DIY camera tricks, there’s always something new lurking behind and in front of the camera – this is the rare film that would actually benefit from a longer running time.

Burning Days (Emin Alper)

Sydney Film Festival 2022 Report: SALOUM & BURNING DAYS
Burning Says (2022) – source: The Match Factory

Homophobia, rape, and the looming threat of sinkholes compete for screen-time in Emin Alper’s simmering political thriller Burning Days, which arrives fresh in Sydney straight from its glowing premiere at this year’s Cannes festival, but despite its hype, this Turkish potboiler surfaces short of its lofty ambitions.

Playing close to Wake In Fright by the way of Rodrigo Sorogoyen, Burning Days kicks off like every nifty neo-Western does; a hot-shot city slicker – in this case, prickly prosector Emre (Selahbattin Pasali) – arrives in a small, deserted (and fictional) town of Yaniklar, appointed as its new prosector after its previous one left under suspicious circumstances. A daylight boar hunt through the crowded streets of the dehydrated town immediately has the new outsider bristling against his new neighbours, and as various members pine for his allegiances – a division represented by the mayor’s immoral son Sahin (Erol Babaoglu) and the local crusading newspaper reporter Murat (Ekin Koc) – Emre finds himself descending deeper than the sinkholes that are erupting around the town in the midst of a water crisis, threatening to envelop the whole town itself if changes aren’t made.

As Emre fights to avoid being chewed up and spit out like his previous delegate, he finds himself entangled in the rape of a local Romany girl, Peknez (Eylul Ersoz), a complicated case because it occurred at a party that Emre himself attended and preceded to pass out in. Trying to remember his fractured memories against the anecdotes of those who were – and weren’t – there, the young prosecutor starts to see the bulls-eye slowly painted on his back as his investigation threatens the re-election of the incumbent but corrupt mayor. These various plot elements initially appear quite intriguing, and when mixed with the growing isolation of the town and the desperate folks who live within it, the growing anxiety and paranoia suggest that this Chinatown-flavoured noir will explode at any minute, spilling blood and secrets across its bronze landscape.

Unfortunately, Alper‘s screenplay grows increasingly repetitive, lapsing into a pattern of hazy dream sequences and hushed conversations over cigarettes, and even when mob justice rears its ugly head near the climax, Burning Days favours its various laboured metaphors rather than any satisfying denouements. Praise must be rewarded to the film’s searing depiction of modern-day homophobia, which is economically realised through the character’s non-chalant social behaviour and avoids any overwrought monologues or didactic displays of sensationalism for the sake of its underlying message, but this muted approach drapes over the entire monotonous running time, which like its central city, finds itself drier than anticipated.

Do any of these films sound appealing to you? Let us know in the comments!

The Sydney Film Festival is happening from June 8th – 19th 2022, details about ticket and film information can be found here: https://www.sff.org.au/

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