Maasai: The Rain Warriors Review

AKA: Masai: The Rain Warriors, Massai: Les Guerriers de la Pluie
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure/Survival Drama
Year Released: 2004
Distributor: ArtMattan
Origin: Kenya/France
Running Time: 90 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 12+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Yeelen, Sia: The Dream of the Python, Sundiata, Malika: Warrior Queen, Seven Samurai
Notes:
-This film will be addressed as “Maasai: The Rain Warriors” and I will get into details why in the review.
Fun Facts:
-This is the first narrative film from French director Pascal Plisson. He’s known for his documentary work such as his contributions to Earth From Above as well as Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom series.

-The cast consists of all non-professional actors who are all of the Maasai Tribe.

-Maasai: The Rain Warriors is the first movie in history where the dialogue was entirely of the Maa language (the native tongue of the Maasai). This was a huge deal even in it’s native Kenya since a majority of films made in that country are in Swahili and/or English even to this day.

-Yvan Cassar was responsible for the music. His work was also featured in Indaba, Chateaubriand, and The Impossible Truth. Cassar and Cameroonian jazz singer/multi-instrumentalist Richard Bona collaborated for the ending theme “Laila”. Bona has also worked with musicians such as Kazumi Watanabe, Bobby McFerrin, Les Nubians, and Bela Fleck.

-There are over 2 million Maasai on this planet with a majority of them living in Kenya although 800,000 live in neighboring Tanzania. They’re a Nilotic African ethnic group, have a semi-nomadic lifestyle, and are known for their warriors. They wear red, are trained even in childhood to use weaponry, facing wild animals, and that class are the only group of people in the community to wear dreadlocks while most of the Maasai have bald or very short hair.

It has been a long time since I’ve reviewed anything from Kenya. Last time I did so was covering the TV documentary Preying Missionaries which was one of the most difficult, yet immensely powerful watches I’ve seen in years (this is even before I got into reviewing films). This time around, I get to cover a narrative film involving one of the most noted indigenous African groups, the Maasai. I remember hearing about them ever since I was a child with different books, but I never researched into them too much. There was one news story I found out about them in early 2019 when they were victims of cultural appropriation when Louis Vuitton and other luxury clothing companies ripped off their traditional clothing designs and selling these clothes at jacked-up prices. Do you want to know what other news story I found out literally at the same time as that one thanks to a video on YouTube? I’ll give you a hint. It involves trademarking a very certain “problem-free philosophy” as a giant middle-finger against millions of Swahili-speakers. Is it too much to ask for someone to respect African cultures? Anyway, I saw a trailer on some ArtMattan DVDs about this Kenyan movie which deals with the aforementioned Maasai tribe and that caught my attention.

I found out while watching this movie that it was directed by a Frenchman. Will this be a respectful depiction of this East African ethnic group or will this be a slap in the face to their entire community?

Maasai: The Rain Warriors takes place somewhere along the Great Rift Valley in Kenya. There’s a Maasai village that suffered from a long drought due to a curse stemming from a greatly powerful lion named Vitchua. This lion is the red god incarnate who is said to cause massive droughts and famines. Their top warrior was slain by Vitchua and there has been a dwindling amount of fighters to take his place. Not only that, but all of them are teenagers who are rookies for these types of missions, but they are the only ones left. They’re lead by Merono who is the son of a witch doctor alongside his peers such as Lomotoon who is the fallen warrior’s younger brother, the narcissistic Narkossai, brothers Saitoti and Kibo, and a retired warrior Papai among others. They venture into the heart of the savannas to find this cursed lion, get his mane, and finally bring the rains back to the land. How will this last line of defense stand against warriors from rival tribes, wild animals, and inner tensions with this small infantry?

I was very impressed by the attention to detail with the Maasai people for starters. While they don’t live in a modernized area, it still shows them as very self-sufficient, intelligent, and especially not in a savage light which is huge. Any racist idiot would make them dumb, naked, bestial, and probably cannibalistic, but none of that stuff shows up here. The DVD even had a special feature that was loaded with Maasai facts which went into the research into the film which is a major plus for me. Pascal Plisson did his homework for a lot of it, so I got to give credit where credit is due. This certainly was a respectful depiction of the Maasai group much less rural Kenya. This only makes movies such as The Lion King, Tarzan (any version), and Madagascar look even more bigoted and inauthentic in hindsight. I’ll even go one step farther and say that the characters were better here than in Dreams of Dust which was another African film directed by a Frenchman. Let’s get into the production of the film. It was just right in terms of subtle special effects while still feeling realistic. There are beautiful shots of rural Kenya with the b-roll footage as well as the regular filming going on. The mirage effect was handled so effortlessly in one scene and the green screen effects with the confrontation between Merono and Vitchua were spot on and I thought he was fighting a lion for real in the final act. Eat your freaking heart out, Jon Favreau! The usage of earth tones and warm colors really accentuates the African plains and other environment around them. The music was wonderful with tribal drumming, choruses, and some orchestral pieces. The ending theme was just beautiful. Okay, I swear this is going to be my last potshot against that Disney movie franchise, but if some of that music was used in The Lion King’s score, people would eat this stuff up. Besides all of that the story had the right amount of high stakes as well as some believable conflicts such as the immaturity of the warriors, some arguments here or there, survival plots that could happen to someone in that part of the world, and the mental health of someone thrust into this dangerous situation far from home. I wanted the Maasai warriors to succeed even with some of the shortcomings. Some characters went on this mission for their own reasons like taking care of sick younger siblings, wanting to look brave, or trying to prove themselves to the rest of the community. It was a very impactful story from start to finish with a good amount of twists and turns. One thing I noticed was that it’s unclear what time period it takes place in which I thought was a feature and not a flaw. Given that most Maasai people live away from the major cities or towns, a movie like this one could theoretically take place either centuries ago, the present day, or even the distant future with how tightly their culture has been protected for multiple generations. It creates a timeless aspect to the setting and narrative which is something I’ve rarely seen done well to this extent.

Maasai: The Rain Warriors does have a few dry spells here and there. While the cinematography was sound, there were moments of aliasing and some minor pixelation in certain parts of the movie on my DVD copy. It can also get hard to keep track of some of the characters since the names are rarely ever mentioned in conversation or the narration. They do have their own unique personalities, but I had to check my notes with who was whom again. The female representation aspect is ambivalent. Besides Laila (Merono’s love interest), the other women don’t have names. I will say that it was awesome when the women in their community are able to save them later on in the story which I won’t spoil, but I would’ve liked to know who they were. The fight scenes between the Tarkanas and even Vitchua later on were very quick and could’ve used a couple of extra minutes. The latter example was meant to be ambiguous as not to spoil the ending which I understand, but the Tarkana fight did feel somewhat random even if it made sense (also, the Tarkanas are a real ethnic group). There were a few subtitle typos that I found while watching this DVD. Some are you are wondering why I spelled the movie the way I did. I haven’t had to do this since I reviewed The Astonishing Works of Osamu Tezuka where the distributors presented that anthology as if the Japanese naming order was his actual first and last name, but this is for a different reason. The ethnic group that’s prominently featured in this movie is spelled with THREE A’s and not two. With all the research that went into being respectful to the aforementioned group, you would think they would pay more attention to the actual name of them. Yes, I’ve seen it spelled as “Masai” multiple times even years before discovering The Rain Warriors, but I intentionally spelled it the proper way. This was a rookie mistake. Don’t believe me, then type in “Masai” on Google and tell me that you wouldn’t be corrected. That mistake in both the original French and English titles did make me shake my head. While I’ve seen far worse examples of mistakes or straight up carelessness about depicting Africans in indie and mainstream films, this still made me shake my head.

This was a refreshing watch. It was a breath of fresh air seeing an African ethnic group being portrayed with dignity and also with realism. The story may not be complex, but it was still engaging to say the least. The visual and sound production were great. I do wish it was easier to find out more about the warriors as well as the female characters in the village. There was a lot of research went into this film that is handled better than other non-African directors making a movie taking place on that continent, but the title situation was something I could ignore. Maasai: The Rain Warriors is a valiant adventure film that has a great amount of authenticity to it that would put other efforts to shame. Definitely recommended.

Now, I wish these clothing companies would pay the Maasai community for the clothing designs they stole. Screw cultural appropriation.

Adjustable Point Scores:
-Add 1 point if you’re a fan of Afro-fantasy movies or at least enjoy low-key magic elements.
-Subtract 1 points if you want high fantasy tropes.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you prefer more complex stories.

Pros:
-Respectful representation of the Maasai community
-Very good soundtrack
-Masterful usage of magical realism and cinematic realism

Cons:
-It can be tough keeping track of all the names
-Lack of development in background characters
-It’s “Maasai”, and not “Masai”

Final Score: 9/10 points

Content Advisory: If Maasai: The Rain Warriors was rated by the MPAA, then I could see it getting either a hard PG or a very soft PG-13. There’s violence and some blood, but it never gets too gory. There are two deaths even though both of them are offscreen. There is a certain amount of peril and scariness, but it never gets overbearing. It can be a bit off-putting where most of the warriors are in their teens even if it is accurate to Maasai culture. Some conservative viewers may have an issue with some astrology and low-key magic elements tied to the Maasai religion on display.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Maasai: The Rain Warriors is property of ArtMattan. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of ArtMattan.

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