Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Two African Films: Abouna (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, 2002) & Waiting for Happiness (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2002)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2007)

This week, I want to look at two films from Africa – Abouna (Our Father), which takes place in Chad and which was directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, and Waiting for Happiness, set in Mauritania and directed by Abderrahmane Sissako. Both were made in 2002.

I had been reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s writings on his life as a journalist throughout Africa, collected in his book The Shadow of the Sun, and it struck me that some of the essential experiences of the continent that recur through his book and which he communicates so well, provide a background that can help with a fuller understanding of these two films.

To set them into context I want to quote from Kapuscinski’s book. He is in Ethiopia, near Gondar, and he meets a man who is walking south. Why is he walking south? Because his brother had set out from home long ago in that direction. He has been walking a long time. He has come from somewhere in the Eritrean mountains. Says Kapuscinski of him. ‘He knows about walking south: in the morning, you must head straight into the sun. When he meets someone, he asks whether they have seen, or know, Solomon (that’s his brother’s name). No one is surprised at such a question. All of Africa is in motion, on the road to somewhere, wandering. Some are running away from war, others from drought, still others from hunger. They are fleeing, straying, getting lost. This one, walking north to south, is an anonymous drop in the human deluge flooding the roads of the continent, a deluge driven either by fear of death or by the hope of finding a place under the sun.
Why does he want to find his brother? Why? He doesn’t understand the question. The reason is obvious, self-evident, not requiring an explanation. He shrugs his shoulders. It is possible that he feels pity for the man he has just encountered and who, though well dressed, is poorer than he in some important, priceless way.’

Both of the films I want to look at today touch on themes of seeking and belonging, the physical and spiritual qualities that make a home, and the necessary quest that may take a person away from that home.

First Abouna. Abouna begins with a man walking across a sand dune, turning to stare into the camera (with a look that dares us to judge him and that, to me anyway, recalls the scene of Harriett Andersson doing a similar thing in Bergman’s Summer with Monika), before becoming resolute, turning and descending rapidly out of the frame as he walks down a dune. He reappears briefly minutes later and then disappears again, walking to the horizon. This is the father and this is the last we see of him. The film is structured around his absence.

His two sons, Tahir and his younger brother, the asthmatic Amine, soon discover his absence and try to come to terms with the unaccustomed void in their lives. They wait for him at the bridge that forms the border between Chad and Cameroon. ‘Over this bridge, you’re already elsewhere’ says Tahir.

They go the factory where he works only to be told that he hasn’t worked there for over two years; they go to the cinema and see him, or imagine him they see him, on the screen, greeting them, or his children in the film. They do not find him on the celluloid that they subsequently steal but it is this act of thievery that causes their mother- who has a wonderfully dignified, regal bearing – to send them away to a school out in the bush, to remove them from temptation. ‘Be patient,’ she says when she leaves them, ‘God is looking after you.’

From there the boys dream of escape and seeking their father. There is a lovely moment when Tahir is bathing in a compound. He drops his flannel over the wall as a girl in a golden dress walks by. In his confusion at her presence, he hides his face, calling out ‘what is your name?’ only after she has walked by. She walks on without turning round until even her shadow has disappeared. In the wake of his father’s disappearance it is a poignant moment, telling of how quickly people arrive and depart until even their shadow has gone and all that is left is a dusty street.

The boys try to escape but are caught. Tahir is shackled and is given a choice. If he swears not to run off he will be released. If he lies in his oath however, he is warned that even after he dies, his soul will continue to wander. This is a real and significant threat – to risk such a punishment would be tempting fate indeed.

When Uncle Adoum arrives to see them for a day, he brings news of their father. He is on the coast, in Tangier, and there is a tangible sense of excitement at discovering the fact of a placename, no matter how fruitless it may be. ‘Can we go there on foot?’ asks Amine. Uncle Adoum just laughs. Their father has sent a poster which the boys put up on the wall of their hut. It’s a picture of the sea and a beach. The fascination it exerts can perhaps only truly be felt if you live in a landlocked, largely desert country in central Africa. From this moment, water enters the film. While Tahir finds love at the river when he comes across the girl with the golden dress bathing, Amine – soon after he has discovered that his elder brother no longer wants to leave –  is taunted by the reminder of water as a man walks past him on a street with tins of water hanging from a yoke across his shoulders.

The remainder of the film I leave to you to discover. Needless to say, Tahir’s quest and coming-of-age involves both sacrifice and exchange, loss and gain, as all good quests do. It’s a simple tale that wears its large themes lightly. Ali Farka Touré’s understated musical accompaniment is distinctly appealing too.

Another recurrent theme throughout Kapuscinski’s book is that of waiting, or abiding. Time and again he talks of that particular class of benumbed waiting that attends an event dependent on attaining a quotient of people, whether this be a meeting or discussion taking place or a combi or taxi leaving for its destination. It is a type of waiting that confounds a European worldview in which time is to be used and controlled. I mention this because waiting plays a large part of the next film I want to look at, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness, which features a young man, Abdallah, who has returned to visit his mother in her Mauritanian village next to the sea, before he leaves. To go where is not specified but it seems that he is thinking of Europe. His mother’s village is a place of buffetting wind and white sand, a place of arrivals – a Chinese watch and trinket seller – and a place of departures, as inhabitants think of leaving for Tangiers, and then Europe.

He does not fit in to any life or patterns in the village. His apartness is emphasised right from the very start when we are shown the broken down taxi – the ubiquitous, fully laden, overcrowded Peugeot 504. The other passengers sit and wait in the shade in exactly the attitude that Kapuscinski describes. Abdallah wants to get on, wonders why the motor doesn’t go. He doesn’t know how to wait.

He does not even know Hassanya, the local language, which leads to a scene of excrutiating embarrassment when he sits with his mocking female relatives, naming body parts that he has been taught – wrongly – by Khatra, the electrician’s assistant. ‘He just sits alone’, says his mother, ‘he thinks all the time’. He reads too, which sets him apart from the oral traditions of song and storytelling in the community. These are exemplified partly by the singer Nèma Mint Choueikh and her young accompanist, an amazing young singer named Petite Mamma Mint Lekbeid, to whom she is teaching the songs through repetition.

What remains is for Abdallah to observe, to watch his neighbours – his view often obscured by lines of washing, walls and doorways – instead of engaging in any meaningful interaction with them. From his low window he starts to recognise people from their footwear, something especially frustrating as he watches them go to and from his neighbour Nana’s room. Even when he is in the doctor’s waiting room his attitude of waiting there is different. He is unsettled, looking around.

This is a beautifully understated film about place, belonging, exile, the need to travel and the desire to stay at home. It’s ravishingly filmed – though it would be difficult not to create wonderful images given the light and clarity of colour – and there are some lovely deadpan moments too, for example the papers that keep falling out of the car’s sunshield and the two visits Abdallah makes to his uncle. During the first he is served with a cold drink and the television is put on in his honour. The programme is a French daytime quiz show. We watch and listen to a man from Auxerre talking about his leaisure activities of running half-marathons. When the scene cuts back to the room, it is empty, and the words of the facile game show host go out to a couch, a low table and the curtains keeping out the Mauritanian sunlight.

I must mention plastic water containers too. They are the kind of thing that is easily overlooked, but Kapuscinski rightly points out just how they revolutionized life in places where water had to be fetched. Anyone who has lived in a place where the water supply comes from a well or a standpipe will know of their importance. As Kapuscinski says, although they are relatively inexpensive, they are often the only objects of worth in a household. You get to know the containers intimately. This is what makes a scene such as the one in Waiting for Happiness in which Makan relates the details of his plastic containers to the policemen so understandable. Says Makan, ‘The big one is 60 litres, it lasts two weeks. It’s for cooking. The other one is 25 litres, 7 ½ days, and the other, 25, 7 ½ days. The smallest, 8 litres, for tea, 3 days.’

It is Nana who gives him a taste of the difference in attitude that he can expect if he makes it to Europe. She has been there, to Perpignan. She travelled there to tell her lover, Vincent, of the death of their little girl through fever. ‘Some things must be said face to face’ said she. ‘Why have you come?’, said he.

I began by quoting from Kapuscinski’s book about a man searching for his brother. I’ll end by describing a scene from Waiting for Happiness in which Maata, the electrician, talks of a friend, Ethmane, who many years previously, had come to him with plane tickets, one for each of them, so that they could leave. Maata didn’t want to leave, and didn’t want Ethmane to leave either, but he did. Now years later, he says, ‘This Ethmane. Today, I don’t know where he is. I still think of him. Maybe that’s what weighs on my heart.’ Simple words but enough to set a man seeking, or to break his spirit.

I revisited both of these films for this review. Before I watched them my memory had held them to be contrasting films, the one about movement and journeying, the other about frustrated waiting. Watching them again though, I am struck by their many similarities.

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