Stillness in the African film Abouna
A courtyard with chickens, a shower head caked with calcium deposits
dangling in the corner, plastic boilers and tiles with coloured
stripes. Harsh light and sharply defined shadows, crickets chirping.
The camera peers into a room, where Tahir and his younger brother
Amine lie sleeping under mosquito nets. They live in Chad, near
the border with Cameroon.
In the dulling heat a rather simple story unfolds. Tahir and Amine’s
father abandons the family with no explanation. The mother cannot
manage the boys on her own and takes them to a Koran School, where
they are severely beaten after an initial attempt to run away.
They promise one another that they will look for their father as
soon as they can get away. Tahir breaks the promise when he falls
in love with a deaf mute girl who lives near the Koran School.
The sadness and asthma from which Amine has suffered for years
prove fatal. Tahir returns to the family home and lives there with
his girlfriend and his mother.
Abouna has a slow pace and a level of stillness that is typical
of West African films. The slow pace can be nice or it can be somewhat
annoying. As a viewer it is not easy to adjust to the African tempo
in an hour and a half. The stillness is literal; there is not much
dialogue and very little is explained in words. Long shots of people
and the landscape are accompanied by dreamy music by Ali Farka
Touré. Frequently the sequence of images tells the story.
Such as when swimming classmates beckon Amine, who is standing
alongside the water. ‘He can’t swim’, one yells.
Amine stares ahead angrily. He runs away and looks for a stick.
In the following scene one of the boys goes to the teacher with
a bloody nose. No screaming, no crying, no explanation regarding
what has happened. In a third shot Amine is being beaten by the
teacher, but doesn’t utter a peep.
The only actual dialogue occurs when the father leaves. ‘He
is irresponsible’, says the mother, with one French word
among the Arabic. Amine looks it up in the dictionary and Tahir
explains that irresponsible means not responsible. ‘So father
is not responsible for leaving’, Amine surmises with some
relief. Later Amine asks why Tahir does not want to search for
their father any more. ‘If he loved us, he would have stayed.’
Abouna is a film by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. Along with Promised
Land by Jason Xenopoulos and Heremakono by Abderrahmane Sissako this
film is part of Tigers on Tour, an International Filmfestival
All three films were made in part thanks to contributions by the
Hubert Bals Fund.
They will be shown at the Africa in the Picture Film Festival (3-14
September). After the festival the films will be screened for a
couple of more weeks in Rialto and subsequently in 19 other theatres
in the Netherlands, between mid-October and mid-January.
Marrigje de Bok