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Waiting for Happiness

Posted by martinteller on October 27, 2012

The coastal Mauritanian town of Nouhadhibou is a waypoint, a stopping point on your way to somewhere else.  Abdallah (Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamed) is a young man on his way to Europe, stopping to visit his mother (Fatimetou Mint Ahmeda) and other relatives.  He’s been studying somewhere else and knows little of the native language.  Khatra (Khatra Ould Abder Kader) is a small orphan boy who teaches Abdallah a few words, but mostly he works as an apprentice to the crabby electrician Maata (Maata Ould Mohamed Abeid).

There is not much plot synopsis to give.  It’s a film that speaks primarily in small bursts, little scenes that don’t suggest a lot of forward momentum, but evoke the feeling of lingering in a warm place.  It is what some call “contemplative cinema” so if you’re averse that sort of thing, this isn’t for you.  But I thought it was a wonder.  This is the type of film that keeps me searching for new avenues to explore.  Although it’s not a joyful film, it does emanate warmth and quiet dignity, visiting a place caught between two cultures — native and Western — but finding a comfortable middle ground.  The town feels like a close-knit group, where folks pine for friends who have departed for other shores, where life moves at a gentle pace.

Abdallah and Khatra are on different sides of the cultural divide.  Abdallah is thoroughly Westernized, trying to connect with his roots.  As a party goes on outside, the music carrying throughout the town, he puts down his book and steps outside and dances by himself.  He seems mildly obsessed with others’ footwear, as if trying to decide what kind of shoes he should wear.  Khatra is trying to learn modern skills, to position himself for a future in a land edging ever closer to Western society.  Hulking ships linger on the horizon.

And they aren’t the only citizens we meet.  There’s Nakan, a beachcomber who picks up the detritus of technology that washes ashore.  A little girl is being taught music by her mother, the songs of her ancestors.  Tchu, a Chinese man who sells watches and courts one of the locals.  Director Abderrahmane Sissako builds a strong sense of community in a place where community is somewhat transient.  The director himself has a cross-cultural background, having been schooled in Russia.

The images throughout are stunning.  The poetry of the narrative is matched by the poetry of the visuals, gorgeous use of color and light and cultural detail.  Also a spectacular soundtrack, highlighting the beautiful West African music.  Hypnotic, poetic, lovely, both melancholy and celebratory… one of the best films I’ve seen all year.  Rating: Masterpiece (96)

IMDb
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