Animal: in a ruined world, hope, tradition and openness to new consciousness can overcome despair

Jules Janaud and Fabrice le Nezet, “Animal” (2017)

In the not too distant future, in a post-industrial world, communities living on the margins of society will find new ways of accommodating and blending cyber-technologies with traditional folk customs that pass on knowledge and a sense of identity and belonging. An elderly man, Jawak (Issaka Sawadogo), lives a reclusive life in one such impoverished community, somewhere on the outskirts of Paris or Dakar (Senegal), caring for his pet, Noodle: it is a mutant cephalopod born in an environment where various toxic chemicals, some radioactive, have been dumped for a long time. The wildlife has changed in order to cope with the high levels of radiation. Half a century ago, as a child Jawak entered a radioactive zone with two friends, one of them Marcel; while exploring and looking for something, Jawak suffered an accident for which Marcel was in part responsible. Since then permanently disabled (and presumable unable to find work where he needed to be able to walk and move normally), Jawak has nursed a long-simmering resentment against Marcel (Bass Dhem) who has done much better in life.

An opportunity to settle an old score arises when Jawak and Marcel agree to match their cephalopod animals, Noodle and Bouma respectively, in a fight at which bets will be placed and money will change hands. For this, Jawak prepares Noodle carefully: he dresses the creature in warrior regalia and feeds it special food which includes his own blood as advised by a traditional healer to get rid of the anger and resentment he still feels from his childhood.

For much of the film, the action is slow and leisurely, the preparation for the fight being as much a ritual in itself as the fight is: Jawak goes to great lengths to buy the special food and feed Noodle, and to make special armour which he also paints carefully. At the match itself, Jawak in semi-traditional dress dances a ritual dance signalling the beginning of battle; Marcel on the other hand, natty in his Western suit, brings out his well-fed animal with little ceremony. This part of the film shows up the huge disparity in Jawak and Marcel’s circumstances and their attitudes to tradition and modernism: Jawak has always been poor and stayed close to his west African culture and traditions while Marcel has enjoyed a fully Westernised lifestyle with little regard for his ancestors’ backgrounds and culture.

While the film seems slow and appears not to say a great deal initially, after a second watch this viewer perceives how tradition and secret knowledge can enrich and benefit an individual and even effect a transformation that will resonate through that individual’s life for a long time. Jawak’s use of tradition to achieve several goals is skilfully and minimally demonstrated in the straightforward plot: he has his revenge on Marcel and at the same time is able to relieve his feelings of resentment, and presumably can go forward in his life. The climactic moment occurs when Noodle, appearing badly bitten and beaten by Bouma, suddenly responds to the spirit messages and nourishment infused into it and begins chasing the bigger mutant.

The acting is very good and the narrative and cinematography work together well to create and escalate tension and anticipation while at the same time working in a theme of culture and tradition providing a basis for hope, sacrifice, transformation and resurrection against astronomical physical odds. In the end, it is the state of mind and one’s openness to a new consciousness and reality that wins against brute physical force.