bisous, mes chères!
welcome back to returning to the Source! it’s a pleasure to be in your company again. this month, i’m doing something a little special: i’m writing reviews for two of my favorite movies in a mini-series called split screen. today’s issue is about the groundbreaking animated film Battledream Chronicle, written, directed, animated, and composed by Alain Bidard. the second part of split screen will drop Saturn-day May 29th wherein i will cover the inimitable feature film Compensation, directed by Zeinabu irene Davis.
i’d gone for a long time without having any claims to a favorite movie because the ones i cared for in high school and college featured predominantly – if not exclusively – white casts, and i didn’t feel as connected to those stories anymore. mainstream film is often used as a propagandistic tool to reify the logics of empire, the beauty of whiteness, the dominance of patriarchy, etc. so i’ve been searching for films by Black creators who use what bell hooks names “the oppositional gaze” to combat the quotidian violences of common media (ex. Barry Jenkins did this with Moonlight, Lena Waithe fumbled with Queen and Slim). though a year hasn’t even passed since the first time i watched either of these movies, i can confidently say they’ve snatched my top spots. the stories that Bidard and Davis tell through their projects affirm, among many other things, that Blackness should be afforded nuance and triumph onscreen. one day i’ll more fully problematize the functions of the “gaze” within a visual culture – especially as it relates to Blackness, gender, ability, and class – but i’ll stick with lighter fare for now!
if U want to experience Battledream Chronicle for yourself, here’s a link to stream it for free: https://www.pbs.org/video/battledream-chronicle-ofntgz/
in the year 2100, humans are able to upload their consciousness to a digital utopia called Farandjun as a way to escape the ills of the real world until this realm is suddenly seized by a virus named Isfet. she introduces Battledream, a video game in which nations must fight against each other with their sovereignty on the line. four years later, the empire of Mortemonde rules nearly the entire world after an unbroken streak of wins. nations held captive within their grip must send their inhabitants into Battledream to collect 1000 XP every month or face death. enter Syanna Meridian: a young enslaved woman with a mysterious past who bravely confronts the choice between liberation or death. with time running out, Syanna leads a team of Battledream fighters in the rebellion against Mortemonde to secure a future for her people by any means necessary.
mild spoliers to come, so please proceed with caution!
released exactly six years ago to the day, Battledream Chronicle is a thrilling, innovative chapter within the vast index of Afrofuturistic art. its impact is undeniable as the first animated feature film from the French-Caribbean island of Martinique, but beyond that, it’s a rare and hopeful tale that displays Black women successfully toppling empire. Syanna Meridian and her comrades are a refreshing set of characters to cheer on as they race to join the free nation of Sablereve, the digital offshoot of Martinique and the world’s one remaining shot at defeating Mortemonde.
the cel shading animation is as dynamic and layered as the mythological motifs interlaced throughout the plot. for example, the virus Isfet shares her name with the Egyptian goddess of chaos and evil; this was a choice that Bidard intentionally made since she is meant to represent the destructive nature of colonialism. many of the video game moves used in Battledream are also named after figures in Caribbean or African folklore. take one of Syanna’s signature moves, SOUCOUYANT:
fire remains a bright thoroughline within the narrative as an elemental emblem of will and renewal. Syanna and her best friend Alytha comprise the Battledream team Sirenes de Feu (Mermaids of Fire). they are the ones to discover the astutely-named Oiseau du Feu (Firebird or Phoenix), a Battledream relic full of rare powers that will lend them a serious chance at rising from the ashes of Mortemonde’s empire. one can’t help but think of Lumina Sophie, leader of the fiery 1870 revolts in Southern Martinique. it is no small feat to be the keeper of the flame.
the rulers of Mortemonde – which translates literally to “dead world” – are also referred to as Deicides, which is identical to the word for killing (or killer) of a god. through the names and deeds of these characters, enslavement is positioned as physically-lethal, but Bidard takes great care to emphasize the psychic death that enslavement also forces on an entire people. enslavement kills the “god” of self-knowledge, of home, of origin.
the absence of memory casts a huge presence throughout Battledream Chronicle as various characters express yearning for knowledge of a past they no longer have access to. (“memory” also takes on somewhat of a double meaning since the story takes place in a digital world, the setting serving as a critique of the widening influence of technology and the internet on our lives.) after she successfully joins Sablereve’s ranks, Syanna confronts how much she has lost with Kyzer’s assistance:
this poignant scene, which takes place right before the final battle, imparts an ouroboric lesson: rebellion is reclamation of memory, and the reclamation of memory is a form of rebellion. of course, no singular person can prevail against the Powers That Be, so the movie also explores the well-trodden theme of loyalty as bonds between characters are strengthened – and tested – throughout Syanna’s journey.
this earnest, unflinching exchange between the two friends contains the spirit of the final line from Assata’s chant: “we have nothing to lose but our chains.” we can only hope to develop this kind of principled kinship in our own waking lives as the terrors of colonialism continue to ravage our planet.Battledream Chronicle is certainly fantastical, but the viewer should only suspend disbelief when it comes to the video game effects. Bidard’s film imparts a real sense of urgency around what’s currently at stake for people of Martinique, and the rest of the African diaspora. this movie is meant to be the first installment in a trilogy, and considering how much of a vibrant, immersive adventure it was, the upcoming entries promise to excite our revolutionary imagination even further.
my review of Compensation will be dropping in your inbox in seven days time, so stay tuned for split screen pt. two! in the meantime, please feel free to email me with your thoughts on the newsletter, i’d love to know if/how my words resonate with U <3
à la prochaine,