Stillness in the African film Abouna

September 2003 -

Still from 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 Rotterdam initiative.
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.