W'eand K'uuni is set in the pre-colonial Mossi Empire of the 15th Century. The name means `gift of God', and is given to a young orphan child (Serge Yanogo) whose story is told in the film. The film reflects a different form of life to that of Africa today, but the issues with which it deals are as important now as they were then.
The movie begins with a scene in which a woman mourns the disappearance of her husband. She and the audience do not know if he's dead, but he has been gone for so long that the village community is pressing her to marry another man because tradition holds that her son belongs to the community. Viewers don't know whether this scene is taking place today or hundreds of years ago. The woman decides to run away with her son, to avoid the complications of becoming someone else's wife while not knowing the real fate of her husband.
The action then shifts to a traveller who finds a child, lying in the bush and nearly dead from thirst. The traveller revives the boy, and asks him where he comes from. But the child cannot speak, even though he hears what the traveller is saying and clearly understands him. The shift in action serves as a quite effective narrative device, because not only do the characters in the film not know the story of this child, neither does the audience. (In traditional storytelling fashion, we have to wait on narrative development to see how the child's life plays itself out. There is no `voice of God' to tell us, or `Archimedean Point' from which to view, the way the action will develop.)
Because he can't both travel and look after the boy, the traveller leaves him with some villagers. The villagers are unable to find from where the child comes. So they let a family with just one child adopt him. In this family, the child is given the name which is also the film's title. What follows is a reconstruction of how people lived before the white men came. This part of the movie is very calm, and portrays a life that is almost too peaceful. In a peculiar kind of way, the development of the narrative during this part of the film is characterized by a contradiction between what is shown and what the audience hears.
There is little dialogue, but the musical score seems to intrude: action is continually punctuated by baroque string ensemble music and a sort of trumpet voluntary, which are quite culturally at odds with the African context displayed. After showing the boy living peacefully with these people for a few years, the movie begins to change. Another family in the village has a fight when the young wife does not want to stay with her older husband. It also shows how Poguere (Rosine Yanogo), the daughter of the adoptive family with whom W'end becomes friendly, is punished very much more than W'end is. While these situations are developed, the music begins to shift, with more genuinely African themes and figures beginning to punctuate the score.
After the family quarrel, the scandal is so great that the husband hangs himself in shame. W'end finds the body, and the shock is so great that he suddenly begins to speak. Soon after Poguere, who is very fond of W'end, asks him to tell her where he came from. It is then that viewers see in flashback what happened to the mother shown at the beginning of the movie. Viewers see the villagers calling her a witch, and chasing her and her child away. She runs as far as she can, and collapses from exhaustion and dies while the child is sleeping. When the child wakes up, we see that he is W'end. He runs away from the body of his mother, and after he collapses he in turn is found by the traveller.
Life and Time A strong message in W'end K'uuni is that life before white colonization was not perfect for everybody. Many of the early scenes in the film suggest that precolonial traditional life offered an authentically African kind of democracy. However, it is during these kinds of scenes that the score sounds almost intrusively European in its values. It is as if the director wants to distract those who believe that what can be shown on film is not necessarily what the real story would reveal.
To a degree, it would seem, Gaston Kabor'e uses the soundtrack to alert his viewers against the possibility of too literal a reading of the visual element. The very period of the musical score's origin suggests that the visual narrative is likely to be mediated by precisely the kind of Romanticist ethnographic reconstructions found in many popular documentary films. The scenes in which W'end begins to play music for himself (using a bamboo flute) introduce a kind of iterative musical figure which initially serves as a kind of response to the dominant baroque themes. It is as if the very articulation possible with such a ready-to-hand instrument places the character of W'end into another kind of relationship with the narrative so far.
As the story develops, so the return of W'end's speech seems to pull both sound and picture into some kind of synchronization. We begin to see that precolonial life, while unquestionably different, did not because of this difference provide people with the kinds of chances that democracy guarantees. In the narrative, girls and women clearly do not enjoy the same status as boys and men, and lose virtually all their power in marriage. In a scene which takes place in an urban market, there are clear indications that a kind of caste system was in place, the interaction between wealthy clients and traders clearly betraying the stereotypical thinking characteristic of class-based social relations.
One way people can interpret this film is to believe that traditional ways were necessarily better. Certainly, the visual composition of the early part of the film has been edited in ways which make this view the more plausible. But the movements signified by the growing agreement between the visual, narrative and musical elements of the film suggest that recovery of the precolonial past will not restore some lost democratic order. Musically, the viewer is brought into a dialectical relationship signalled by the score following call-and-response patterns between African and Western themes. In the way traditional storytelling points towards both the narrative's origins and the possibilities of future action, so this dialectic seems to suggest that interpretation of future needs will have to incorporate and accommodate influences from both strands of African historical experience.