The lens pans the rippling desert, caressing the rise of the dunes. There are no armored personnel carriers here. Just a dilapidated wagon and its silent male travelers, whose aspects and attire—shirtsleeves or robe, head-covering or no—reflect the cultural mix of their North African destination, the seaside crossroads and central metaphor in Waiting for Happiness, Russian-educated, Paris-based Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s latest poetic reflection on home-as-identity.
Recalling Kiarostami and Panahi, Sissako’s sure hand and light touch allow for symbolic and character-driven delights without the aid of plot. Little orphan Khatra, unofficial apprentice of a dejected electrician, carries a lightbulb with the deft urgency of the goldfish girl in Panahi’s White Balloon. Returned exile Abdullah asks Khatra to teach him Hassanya words he’s forgotten. A mother plays the kora while her daughter mimics her hurled melisma. Brightly veiled women smoke along the wall of a tea room, teasing the men huddled opposite them. The outside world intrudes only by way of the ominous (ships loom in offshore haze) or anomalous (a Chinese man serenades his black girlfriend in a karaoke bar). Sissako’s frequent threshold shots create a conversation between conveyance and confinement that allows indoor and outdoor to fluidly flip roles.
Similarly, in Life on Earth (1998), a stylized trip to his father’s Malian village, Sissako’s camera dwells on modes of transport (the rush of bikes, the bounce and saunter of donkeys) and reflection (a busy portrait photographer, a local anti-colonial radio broadcast between feeds from France). Life‘s companion, an early short, October (1991), concerns a doomed relationship between a Russian woman and her African boyfriend. Rostov Luanda (1997) finds Sissako in Angola seeking an old friend. Taking the Stone Reader approach (carrying his pal’s picture to refugee camps, war-ravaged cities, and remote villages), he attempts to “get lost in the rumors of the country,” and en route, knits an anecdotal history of Portuguese rule, miscegenation, independence, guerrilla war, and current disarray. Rostov is preceded by Sabriya‘s culture-jam romance between a Maghreb man and a westernized woman. Le Jeu (1988) is a lo-fi Lord of the Flies observing kiddie wargames as a father leaves for the front. From a distance, tiny heads bobbing, the children appear ant-like, consigned to a violent fate.
The sporadically surreal Abouna, by Chad’s Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, also focuses on the young. Two boys search for their estranged father, and are so convinced they see him on a movie screen that they steal the film reel. For a verité look at lost youth, South African expat Dumisani Phakathi’s Wa’n Wina checks in with township teens living in a minefield of HIV.
Post-colonial issues are explicit in Ghanaian Kwaw Ansah’s Heritage Africa (1989), a Sembene-like satire-drama about a black official who realizes he’ll never be a jolly old Brit. Zimbabwe gets timely consideration with My Land, My Life, former Mugabe supporter Rehad Desai’s inquiry into land seizure, and in the wonderful Zimbabwe, which precedes it, expat Farai Sevenzo interviews his family about the 2002 elections. His nurse mother waited in a 10-hour voting line; his designer sister derides the ZANU-PF party; his farm-owning father opposes land seizure; his tenant-farmer, ZANU-hatted brother big-ups Mugabe; and his youngest sister just wants to sing American r&b. A globalized reality show in the making.