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Aya of Yop City (2013)

Directed by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie, Aya of Yop City is a true treasure. Following its release in 2013, the film was praised for its delicate storytelling and unique subject matter, eventually snagging a César nomination for Best Animated Film. The critical nod was well-deserved. Contrary to most titles, Aya deviated from the mainstream topics of animation, offering viewers a semi-fictional account of life in Yopougon, Côte D’Ivoire, where Abouet was born. After moving to France at the age of 12, Abouet eventually took an interest in writing. Citing Marjane Satrapi, the French-Iranian artist behind Persepolis (2007), as an inspiration, Abouet wrote Aya as an homage to her homeland. The graphic novel series was published in 2005 before being adapted into a film eight years later.

It is here that our story begins.

Abouet introduces us to Aya, a young, teenage girl living in 1970s Yopougon. Aya is a precocious student who dreams of becoming a doctor. Her friends Bintou and Adjoua, though equally bright, have other concerns at heart and spend most of their time chasing men, sneaking out at night to find love at Yopougon’s open-air maquis and other social hubs. Meanwhile, Aya’s father, Ignace, struggles to keep his family afloat. His employer, the wealthy Bonaventure Sissoko, is making serious cuts at the company, leaving Ignace unsure about whether or not he will remain on staff. While his workers’ jobs hang in the balance, Sissoko has his own problems to count: his only son and heir, Moussa, is lazy, incompetent, and unfit to run the company. Even worse, he is a reckless philanderer--and though his late-night antics have gone unpunished so far, Moussa’s luck eventually catches up to him.

One day, after sleeping with Moussa, Adjoua becomes pregnant. Her father, Hyacinthe, while opposed to sex out of wedlock, is overjoyed when he hears the news; he knows that Adjoua’s pregnancy will entail a forced marriage with Moussa and ensure the family’s financial security. Sissoko, on the other hand, is infuriated. He detests his social lessers and considers it beneath him to marry his son to a commoner. Fearing scandal if he abandons Adjoua’s family, however, Sissoko decides to move forward with the wedding, but the drama does not stop there. When Adjoua’s son is born, it becomes clear that he does not resemble Moussa at all. Sissoko threatens to annul the marriage if Moussa’s paternity cannot be proven. Like Ignace, Hyacinthe must thus win Sissoko’s trust and favor, even if it means lying, to ensure his family’s well being.

It is difficult to summarize Aya of Yop City’s plot. Adjoua’s story dominates the film, but Yopougon is a large city with plenty of other characters, each with their own, fascinating tales to tell. There is Grégoire: a con man who seduces Bintou by duping her into believing he is a wealthy, Parisian millionaire--only to be found out in the end. Then, there is Hervé: Bintou’s dull, passionless cousin who struggles to find meaning in life but, with Aya’s help, eventually discovers his purpose as a mechanic. And finally, there is Mamadou: a handsome but dangerous playboy who weaves his own web of scandal with Adjoua. The result of all this storytelling is a rich, layered portrait of Youpogoun and those who inhabit it. In making this story, Abouet herself said that she wanted to deconstruct the narrow, racist characterization of Africa in film as an impoverished, war-torn region. On that front, she more than succeeds.

Abouet’s Africa is much more realistic and, like any other place, has a mix of troubles and triumphs. The economy is certainly booming. Automobiles, shops, and restaurants line the streets of Yopougon, and television is an accessible luxury. Even Ignace and Hyacinthe own a TV and, at multiple points in the film, are seen viewing commercials for Ivorian beers, soaps, and other goods. Interestingly, none of these commercials are animated. Abouet legitimizes Côte D’Ivoire’s progress by using real, live-action ads from the 70s, drawing a clear line between her fictionalized plot and its historical grounding.

Youpogoun has its problems, however, and social mobility is the biggest of them all. Hyacinthe’s retirement hinges on whether or not he can attach himself to Sissoko, and both Bintou and Adjoua appear to pursue marriage for security more than love. Their outlook is shared amongst Ivorian women; upon hearing of Adjoua’s wedding, a bystander casually asks, “Who is saved?” Men also seem to follow this code. When Hervé finally musters the courage to ask Aya on a date, his first defense is “I have money now”--and Grégoire, detestable as he is, may have seen his faux, bourgeois character as the only way to find love at all. For people like Aya, this problem is compounded by a visibly patriarchal family structure. Her world is one where men reign, making it difficult for women, especially poor women, to assert their voice. Ignace discourages Aya from becoming a doctor, Hyacinthe forbids his daughters from socializing at night, and both men threaten physical abuse if their whims are not met.

Adjoua and Bintou are at the heart of this dilemma. With so much screen time devoted to these two, one begins to question the aptness of the film’s title. Why Aya, and not Adjoua or Bintou, of Yop City? The spirited teen mediates conflict but evades any drama of her own, existing on the periphery while her friends tackle one social grief after another. Her self-reliance makes this possible. Given Abouet’s progressive ideals, it makes sense that someone as independent as Aya should be the hero of this film. Unlike her peers, Aya decides to forge her own destiny. When men try to court her, she denies their advances; when her father orders her to abandon medical school, she fights back. In a world that limits women, Aya is a living testament to the power of the human soul and its ability to navigate any obstacle, however challenging or unfair it may be.

For serious animation fans, Aya of Yop City is a must-see. The production value is a little lacking--viewers spoiled by high-budget films will notice the skipped frames and slightly stilted character motion--but the story, music, and context all make this film worthwhile. In an industry dominated by Western stories and anime, we need to globalize our palette and engage with animation that celebrates unheard voices with taste, truth, and dignity. Abouet and Oubrerie have made that experience possible.


IN A NUTSHELL: A compelling drama and sensible representation of life in Côte D’Ivoire.