Plot: Run is a young man in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). After he assassinates the country’s Prime Minister, we trace his life through a series of flashbacks. In the process, we learn about the people who manipulated him towards this moment: a madman, a competitive eater, a revolutionary, and the future Prime Minister himself.
Populism is now more prevalent than it has been in decades. In the West, figures like Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK have, for better or worse, seized upon the desires of many who wish to reform a broken system. But populism can go both ways. The Far Right have made a resurgence in pockets of Europe and certainly in America, where the ignorant and aimless have turned to figures they deem equally charismatic. Whilst these examples are from a Western perspective, they demonstrate the different forms that populism can take.
Run is director Philippe Lacôte’s (who previously directed a short for the African Metropolis anthology) first feature. Promotional materials for Run made it seem like a political thriller — the African Day of the Jackal, perhaps. But that is not the case.
Instead, Run is the surreal deconstruction of a boy (named Run) who remains an aimless follower until the explosive decision he makes to assassinate the Prime Minister. Run (the character) represents those who succumb to a deceptive message of populism, one that has no intention but to benefit the elite. Through Run’s journey, we learn how those who feel “lost” in society — be they revolutionaries, con artists, fundamentalists, or political opportunists — are actually the ones who suffer most from populism’s many forms.
Run is a follower, and never a leader. He drifts through events and never feels in control of his own destiny. Those who guide him, or that he is drawn to, are figures who appeal to the common man of Côte d’Ivoire.
As we learn why Run killed the Prime Minister, we meet the people in his life who manipulate him. Before flashing back to his childhood as apprentice to the local madman, we see him connect with his current mentor Assa (Bankolé) — the man who pressures him to upset the established order by assassinating the prime minister.
In our second flashback, and the funniest part of the film, we meet the woman who supports Run — “Greedy” Gladys (Reine Sali Coulibaly), a competitive eater who gives Run his first taste of manhood in more ways than one. Greedy Gladys makes a comfortable living by drawing crowds to her acts of self-destruction. She represents the “bread and circuses” that distract the public, and profits nicely from this distraction.
The film’s examination of how populism manipulates the aimless comes into full force when Run joins a group of young men and women being bankrolled by the country’s government. Here, we really get to witness a conflicted young man relying on others to form his identity.
In this moment, Run has his closest taste of independence because he gives into the allure of those claiming to represent the oppressed. Run gleefully throwing money at a groveling club singer is a highlight of the film; it shows him at his worst. Run now has a taste of how manipulating others into inciting violence and hatred can benefit him. But Run is no more than a disposable fool. He’s simply been seduced into creating what looks like a revolution, but actually benefits the government.
The tragedy of Run’s foolishness continues when he agrees to assassinate the Prime Minister. Run’s new mentor Assa is no different from the Madman (who raised Run in a group of fundamentalist occultists), or Gladys (who exploited Run as a lover and servant). Assa is simply more refined in his deception: he offers the false promise of a just cause
Lacôte’s examination of a character with no identity or free will works because it takes place in a heightened reality of grotesque humor and surreal poetry. Run is not a grounded political thriller, but something more ethereal which allows it to get away with far more satire. Besides its director and actors, the standout of Run is the assured cinematography of Daniel Miller. We don’t get to see enough of his remarkable timelapse work, or his beautiful depiction of both the jungle in daytime and the beach at night.
Miller’s spellbinding visual work helps distract viewers from the film’s message populism incited by a leader seeking personal gain will only lead its followers to tragedy. This has particular resonance in the West. Brexit will affect the poorest in Britain the worst, and they are the ones who believed the lies of self-serving politicians like Nigel Farage. Nothing has changed for American voters who believed Donald Trump would make America great again, because he has abandoned them. Yet, these voters still believe the warped, paranoid reality he has crafted.
Run incites “change” by killing his country’s leader. But it never feels as though this is a choice he made himself. He is not his own person. Instead, he’s made from the empty beliefs of those who raised him, taught him, and manipulated him. Perhaps if he were swept up by more positive populism, he may have become a different person — his own person.
Run — Ivory Coast/France. Dialog in French. Directed by Philippe Lacôte. Running time 1hr 42min. First released May 2014. Starring Abdoul Karim Konaté, Isaach de Bankolé, and Djinda Kane.