Friday, 10 October 2014

Waiting for Happiness (2002)

The coastal town of Nouadhibou in the North-west corner of Mauritania is a place where ships go to die, the sea outside it filled with old, abandoned ships. It is also a place to which Africans go as a last stop before trying to reach Europe. And it is where Waiting for Happiness (Abderrahmane Sissako 2002) is set, taking in the refugees, the ships and the locals. I first saw the film ten years ago and it has stayed with me. Now I have watched it again. For its type it is fairly conventional, a lingering narrative, more concerned with observing people than telling a story, little dialogue and plenty of shots with people sitting, or sometimes standing, in silence whilst looking pensive. In a way it is as clichéd as a Hollywood romcom but since clichés are a more or less unavoidable aspect of art, it would be unfair to demand something more. (I have written about clichés here before.)


The man in the shot above is Abdallah (he did not stay very long in that unfortunate room) and he is one of the main characters in the film, in passing on his way to Europe. He does not speak the local language, Hassaniya, so he speaks French, and the local girls make fun of him. His mother lives here though, so that is a reason for him being here. He befriends a little boy, Khatra, who is hanging out with an old man, helping him install light bulbs and electricity in the small houses in which the people live. They are moderately successful, which is also a source for comedy. The light bulb is a recurring motif, representing both life and death, and modernity and its problems.

There are a number of prostitutes around too, and a Chinese man who sings karaoke about being exiled. It is a motley crew, and they all have interesting stories to tell and to share. There is also an undercurrent of tragedy. If you are waiting for happiness, it means it is not with you now, and tales of broken promises, deaths and bodies washed ashore are plentiful. And always the lure of Europe is there, as a hope as well as something fearful, and always out of reach. Even if you happen to make it over there. But there is hope in the film, which, as is so often the case, comes through the children. They have not become cynical yet and they can carry on the culture and the traditions of a vanishing world.


This was Sissako's first full-length film, unless you count the one hour long Life on Earth (1998). His next film was Bamako (2006), which is also good, and more ambitious than Waiting for Happiness. After that it took some time before he was able (or willing) to do a new feature film but this year Timbuktu (2014) opened at Cannes, and hopefully I will be able to see it soon. It is about the Islamists' take-over of Northern Mali 20012-2013 and the subsequent horrors, which ended after France intervened at the request of the Malian government.

Sissako, who was born in Mauritania and now moves between France, Mali and Mauritania, is a fine filmmaker and it is a shame that he has made so few films. He wants to share his part of the world with the rest of it, the rest of us, and it is worthwhile to take the time to be a part of it.

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