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Rolf de Heer,
On the seacoast of Mauritania, some wait to go to Europe. Khatra, a spirited boy, wants an electric light so he can read at night. A stoic older man, Maata, tries to wire the room. Abdallah, a youth on his way to Europe, says good-bye to his mother. Nana looks back on the death of her daughter and her trip to Europe to inform the father. A girl takes singing lessons. Rooms have small windows, looking out onto foot traffic; transistor radios provide some link beyond. Huge ships anchor in the distance. The train comes through, stopping briefly. Offering a cigarette is a gesture of hospitality. Sand dunes and the ocean dominate the landscape. Hope springs amidst small expectations. Written by
This is a quiet, unpretentious little film that should not be seen by those whose cinematic preferences run towards car-chases and Rambo-shoot'emups. It portrays life in a Mauretanian (Northwest African) small coastal town called Nouhadhibou. We meet an elderly electrician named Maata and his pre-teen apprentice Khadra (the star of the show); another subplot, less interesting in my view, tells the story of a son returning from overseas; he speaks only French and not the local Hassanya language, so he is condemned to remain an outsider.
You can predict whether you will like this film or not by whether or not you like recent Iranian films. As in such films, nothing particularly newsworthy ever happens in _En attendant le bonheur_ : people just go about the everyday business of living their lives, lives which are punctuated by the tranquil dailuy rituals of Islam. For me the charm of this film resides, as it does in much Iranian cinema, largely in the beauty of the images (bright blues and reds of the local fabrics against the white of the omnipresent sand dunes); and the sheer luxurious leisureliness of the pace (watch the scene where two interlocutors argue about whether X is in Tangiers or is Spain : Interlocutor 1 ; He's in Spain. (25 second pause). Interlocutor 2: He's in Tangier. Interlocutor 1 (40 second pause) : He's in Spain. Interlocutor 2 (60 second pause): he's in Tangier, etc., etc....)
Above all, what will stay in my mind is the beautiful relation between the young apprentice Khadra and the wizened old electrician Maata. Maata is, in fact, extremely crabby, and he's not much of an electrician. In one scene he attempts to string up a lightbulb in a woman's house ; it doesn't work, no matter what he tries. Later we see Matta and Khatra sitting outside the house ; Matta is smoking, and his dignified, weatherbeaten face shows no sign of emotion. Yet Khadra can tell his master is feeling bad ; he puts his arm around the old man's shoulders and tells him over and over again, with a repetitiousness Western customs would find intolerable, that everything's going to be all right. The other memorable aspect of the film : an old *griotte* or traditional singer, brilliantly gifted, teaches her craft to a girl of about twelve. Their singing, alternatively spine-tinglingly virtuoso and hoarsely off-key, punctuates the film to tremendous effect.
One is left with an impression of dignity, melancholy, fragility and imminent loss, marked by images and moments of striking beauty and tremendous gentleness, as when, around a nighttime fire, Matta tells the story of a long-lost friend who gave in to the temptations of sailing away to the mysterious lands of Spain and France, never to be heard from again ; as Khatra falls asleep, resting his head against the old man's chest.
Sounds corny ? Perhaps it is ; or perhaps the fact that we find it so tells us more about our own jaded cynicism than about the way of living of such resolutely non-Western countries. Recent Iranian films, which also like to use the viewpoint of children to show an innocent way of looking at life of which we cynical Westerners have long since ceased to be capable, are regularly lambasted by the oh-so-hip Parisian press : such films have no political consciousness, it is claimed ; no avant-garde cinematographic techniques, no pretentious imagery. Yet Sissako's film provides us with precious insight into the day-to-day life of the people of Mauretania, whom we might otherwise known only as statistics in some obscure war or famine. They show us a world wholly different from ours, which initially strikes us as appallingly boring and primitive, but soon has us wondering which of us - the Mauretanians or us inhabitants of Western late-capitalist "democracies" - are really living the more authentic, dignifed, and satisfying existence.
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