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‘Dahomey’ Director Mati Diop Would Like to See France Return More Looted African Art

“When I heard that Emmanuel Macron had the intention to return the good that had been taken from colonial Africa, it was the very first time I realized that nothing was where it ought to be,” said Mati Diop of her documentary Dahomey, premiering at the Berlin Film Festival.

The doc tells the story of African art that was looted in the 19th century from the kingdom of Dahomey, following 26 artifacts that were taken back to Benin from France after French president Macron promised restitution in 2017. Among the returned works were statues of Dahomey’s former kings, King Glélé and King Béhanzin, and their throne. (The Kingdom of Dahomey was seen in Viola Davis’ historical epic The Woman King.)

“The question of returning these looted goods has always been at the heart of what I do as a filmmaker,” said Diop, via a translator, during a press conference in Berlin on Sunday. “I have been working on films like this for about 10 years now. The restitution of works of art in a tangible sense, handed back by France – it took me a very long to become fully aware of what it really signified. That’s one of the reasons why I am a filmmaker. I want to make it possible for people to understand these issues.”

Diop said she originally pictured the film as a narrative feature, following one artifact from France to Benin. (Diop, who made history as the first Black female director to screen in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, won the Palme d’Or Prize for her feature Atlantics.) “When Macron announced [this] in 2017, I didn’t know if I was going to witness it in my life. I thought it would happen in 20 or 30 years from now,” said Diop. She had begun to outline a screenplay but when the government announced that 26 artifacts would be given back she “needed to seize the moment.”

When Diop decided Dahomey would be a feature documentary, as opposed to a short, she decided to incorporate the perspective of the country’s students and young people. She said, “I started to think about the ways in which young people related to these works because it is a part of their collective history.”

Joining Diop at the press conference were some of the young people featured in the doc, including Joséa Guedje, Habib Ahandessi and Gildas Adannou. Adannou noted that children in Benin know about the country’s historical artifacts, but they do not necessarily learn about this history in school. “We hadn’t been told so we could forget about it. The whole point of this process was to become connected once again to this history. People wanted, having realized what had happened, to learn more and more about it.”

When asked about what she would like to see from the French government in terms of the restitution of other African artifacts, Diop offered: “It’s quite clear that they were way too few compared with the 7,000 works that are still held captive in these museums. These 26 works are good but are not enough, and I certainly think that it is humiliating. I would say we need to think about more than just the way it was staged and all the governmental communication of this process.”

Added Diop: “France has exploited this place for centuries. You need to do more. You need to go further. You need to breathe new life into this question, and that is what I was trying to do in this film. We need to think of restitution in a broad sense.”

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