Zaho Zay Review: A Family Story, Complete with Murder and Dice

Zaho Zay is a hybrid documentary, drama and poetic reverie that defies paraphrase.

4 mins read

Set on the island of Madagascar, the experimental Zaho Zay is a hybrid documentary, drama and poetic reverie that defies paraphrase. Co-directed by French Malagasy filmmaker Maéva Ranaïvojaona, and Austrian filmmaker Georg Tiller, the film has a binary structure: One part is a document drawn from life on the island nation and the other is a magic realist reverie about a travelling serial killer. The two parts are united by the voice-over monologue of a woman prison guard, daydreaming of her long-absent father while watching inmates in the yard.

At the core of its documentary material in the film is a series of scenes shot in the over-crowded Fianarantsoa Prison, originally used for a documentary short by the filmmakers made for an NGO about Madagascar prisons. The title, Zaho Zay (“I’m here”) comes from the regular prison rollcall. According to Amnesty International, these prisoners are often held in pre-trial detention for years in squalid conditions, but within the film Zaho Zay, we know nothing about them. Most of the inmates are young men, dressed in street clothes, and they are observed in the prison yard, cooking, eating and taking turns shaving each other’s heads in complex designs. They occasionally stare back at the camera but communicate little emotion, except some enthusiasm when a couple of the men pick up guitars and sing.

The guard’s monologue was written by the Malagasy writer, Jean-Luc Raharimanana, and it consists of invective at political and social conditions. (“I’m just a prison guard, not a nurse to a nation vomiting itself up.”) She also introduces her dramatized reveries about her long absent father. Ranaïvojaona’s uncle is a thin middle-aged man in a straw hat and poncho, who decides who dies and lives by rolling a pair of dice. The killings take place off-screen, concluded with the careful washing of a bloody razor. The guard’s monologue characterizes him as a mythical figure of retributive violence against the economic exploiters of Madagascar: “Papa, you know as well as I which scumbags need eradicating from this country…”

In one of the prison scenes, a new prisoner unexpectedly breaks the fourth wall of the film, and informs the off-screen guard that “I knew your father.” This leads progressively to a series of nightmare vignettes in the visually dramatic highlands of the country, including the graphic slaughter of a cow and a local ritual that includes disinterring and reclothing bodies. Here the father-killer encounters magical people, including a boy child who can purportedly disappear at will and an old man who never leaves his house but whose spirit travels the world in his dreams. Eventually, there’s a wordless reconciliation between the father and daughter, who share some fruit, leaving the viewer in a state of blissful bafflement.

Zaho Zay premieres at Hot Docs 2021.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Liam Lacey is a freelance writer for and POV, Canada’s premiere magazine about documentaries and independent films.

Previously, he was a film critic for The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1995 to 2015. He has also contributed to such publications as Variety, Cinema Scope, Screen, and Entertainment Weekly, as well as broadcast outlets CBC and National Public Radio.

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