aka Our Father : Chad/France 2002 : Mahamet-Saleh Haroun : 85 mins
A small-scale, carefully-paced well-observed study of modern African childhood, Abouna begins with a man walking into a shot of desert landscape, turning to look (ambiguously) into the camera, then vanishing off over the dunes. We soon find out that this man (Koulsy Lamko) is a father in the process of walking out on his wife (Zara Haroun) and two children: 15-year-old Tahir (Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa) and Amine (Hamza Moctar Aguid). The kids only realise something is badly amiss when Dad doesn’t turn up to referee their football match. Their investigations reveal he’s been leading some kind of double life (a la the recent French movies Time Out and The Adversary), pretending to go to a non-existent job for more than two years.
While the mother seems stoically resigned to the situation (apparently far from unusual in modern-day Chad) the boys resolve to find their missing parent. Their enthusiasm is kindled when they seem to spot him as an actor in a film showing in their local cinema, setting in motion a chain of events that leads to them being exiled from their city home in the capital, N’Djamena, to a distant religious school in the countryside. The dissatisfied boys somewhat half-heartedly plot to escape – but tragedy intervenes…
Amine’s favourite bedtime book is entitled True Stories From Nature, and that’s exactly what writer-director Haroun delivers with Abouna. His film unfolds at its own pace, in time with the unpredictable rhythms of childhood: one minute frenzied activity, the next torpid passivity (for an Indian equivalent, Maya is strongly recommended). He delights in confounding our expectations: in European and American films, the kids would surely be a little more persistent (and successful) in their attempts to locate their father. Here, they’re soon distracted they become more concerned with making their way to the coast at Tangier, Morocco (Chad is Africa’s largest land-locked country), and Tahir is soon preoccupied by the romantic appeal of a deaf-mute girl (Mounira Khalil – like all the characters apart from Tahir and Amine, la muette is never named.)
Through the accumulation of small detail, Haroun builds a believable, textured vision of the brothers’ lives, and the environments in which they move – from their original, chaotic home near the Cameroon border (“When youre there, youre already elsewhere”) to the stifling confines of the Koranic school. Though events take a darker turn in the second half, there’s much quirky humour along the way: “We don’t like artists here!” snorts a disgruntled guitarist, having just been drenched by an unappreciative neighbour. And there’s a magical, Pirandellian moment when Dad turns and greets his startled boys from the cinema-screen with a cheery, “Hi, kids, how are you?”
But the intent is clearly very serious: Chad has been through all sorts of hardship, and Haroun is careful to make specific points about the various factors shaping the boys development (football, government, economics, the church, parents), and to do so with the minimum of fuss. There’s clearly an allegorical level to his tale — the Arabic word abouna meaning our father in both the physical and spiritual sense, as in English — Chad, like the brothers, feeling abandoned, cut off from a previously all-controlling authority (perhaps God, perhaps the stifling but stabilising hand of colonial power France – the characters switch easily and frequently into French.)
There’s plenty of food for thought, and the film does linger and grow in the mind after it’s over. But on the level of basic viewer engagement, Abouna does dip a little around the middle section, and never quite recovers its stride after the sudden departure from the scene of a major character. Haroun gets fine performances out of Aguid and Moussa as the boys, however, and Zara Haroun (no relation) arguably makes the biggest impact in her brief appearances as the harassed mother. At first implacable and stately as she chugs around town on her motor-scooter, she declines suddenly and harrowingly into silence as events take their toll. Abouna ends on a cautious note of welcome optimism but it’s a daringly quiet, even up-in-the-air finale, like one of those true tales left hanging for another bedtime.
19th August, 2002
(seen 15th, Filmhouse Edinburgh – Edinburgh Film Festival)