Iskander, also known as Moroni, is a French series on the Topic channel that is set in French Guiana, famous for being the setting of the book and movie Papillon. Chloé (Stéphane Caillard) is a young cop who was transferred from France to Cayenne, the capital of Guiana, as punishment for disagreeing with her superior. She is assigned to work with Dialo (Adama Niane, the bad guy from Lupin), a deeply embedded local cop. On her first day, they catch a gruesome murder of a white couple that shows clear signs of being ritualistic. Also, their child is missing. As Chloé and Dialo urgently try to locate the boy, they are drawn closer to the dark heart of a voodoo-like religion that worships the spirit Iskander. While the setting is completely different, the other elements of Nordic Noir are here: brutal murders, tortured detectives, an uneasy society, and folk religion.
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But first, some history
After the first episode of Iskander, I researched French Guiana and West African traditions in the Caribbean. French Guiana is an “overseas department” (read: former colony) of France. It’s on the northeastern tip of South America, above Brazil, and it’s basically the Australia of France, in that it was developed as a penal colony. The center of the country is mostly uninhabitable rainforest, so the population congregates on the Northern coast and along the Maroni river, which acts as the western border between Suriname (Dutch Guyana) and French Guiana. There is a population of businengue, also known as Maroons, or river people, who are descendants of escaped African slaves originally brought to the Guyanas to work sugarcane plantations or mine gold. While most of the population is Catholic, the businengue still practice many of the West African traditions that their ancestors brought with them. These traditions have a lot in common with voodoo, but technically that’s not the right term, so I’m sticking with “folk religion”. (Fun fact not relevant to the show: there is a space station in Guiana that’s a major launch site for the European Space Agency.)
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The couple who was murdered were white do-gooders that distributed school supplies and books along the river. The river people resented this, because they felt the kids were being lured away from their culture. But there are indications that something else is going on. Hanging alongside the bodies on the mast of their boat is an exsanguinated sloth. And on the man’s torso are carved the letters I-S-K-A-N-D-E-R. Dialo claims not to know what that means, but I don’t believe him. Dialo has connections all over town, and when he meets with a local businengue chief, they discuss a mysterious “him” as a suspect. Chloé, meanwhile, puts together some clues regarding the sloth that set she and Dialo on the path to finding the killers. Where that goes is unimaginably dark.
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Our Take on Iskander
At only four episodes, Iskander rips along at a breakneck pace and covers a lot of ground. With the jungle setting and the titillating horror of dark rituals, the show drops the viewer right into a nightmare. The series pays homage to the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which is quoted in the opening. It is, after all, a perilous journey up the river to find a madman (or malevolent spirit), but cleverly wrapped in the well-loved format of a Nordic Noir, with mismatched cops trying to survive their own pain as they track a brutal killer. There will be some who will be offended at the cultural appropriation and perpetuation of the myth that voodoo is evil, but if that doesn’t bother you, Iskander is a visceral ride through a place that is unfamiliar to most of us. I highly recommend it. Warning: you may want to clear four hours out of your schedule before you start.
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