One of my favourite African films is Abouna (Our Father), by Mahamat Saleh Haroun, which I first saw about 5 years ago on TV. It came on about an hour before I was due to go out to meet up with a friend… I was about 40 minutes late – having started, I just had to watch the film till the end.
Set in the director’s home country of Chad, the film has won several awards, including one for its cinematography.
From a Western perspective, it’s not often that we get to see images of African children that aren’t starving, in some form of bondage, or forced into fighting wars; it would be easy to forget, therefore, that African children, just like other children all over the world, have hopes and dreams that aren’t always concerned with the basic needs of life – food, water, shelter, clothing…
Abouna is a modern African story in which two brothers, 15 year old Tahir and 8 year old Amine (played excellently by Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa and Hamza Moctar Aguid, respectively), wake up to find that their father has left them and their mother. Certain that their father will soon come back, they endure having to hear their mother (Zara Haroun) label him irresponsible, and their football playing friends discount him as unreliable (he is their coach, and him not turning up this time around doesn’t sit well with the team).
Their efforts to find their father lead them to find out that their mother and team mates might have had a point but they’re determined to find him, even if it means seeking him out in film (quite literally). The boys’ search lands them in trouble with the law and, at the end of her tether, their mother decides to send the two town dwelling, upper working-class boys, to a rural koranic school where discipline is harsh and unremitting, and only serves to bolster their resolve to escape and find their father.
Abouna is a film that is without affectation or conceit and, though of a different time and place, it put me in mind, at times, of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. The performances, especially from the two leads, is natural and subtly-nuanced and you’re drawn in, not by the high drama, fast-paced action and gripping tension, but by the rapport between the brothers – their jokes, banter, reliance on each other for emotional and mental strength and support.
There are some very sweet, sad, and touching moments, but it’s all managed without any cloyingly sweet cuteness or overt tugging of heart-strings. While dreams and hopes feature prominently in the film, a quality, it would seem, engendered in the boys by their now absent father, they’re used as a vehicle to push things along, to spur the protagonists into action, rather than to provide any sentimental, feel-good escapism.
Familial love, devotion and disruption; childhood dreams, pragmatism and folly; emotional and mental despair, first love… It’s all here, but without a soundtrack that cues your tears and with visuals that are beautiful without being overtly distracting. I give Abouna two thumbs up!
As the film was made in 2002, it’s unlikely to be playing in any festivals anywhere near you, so you may need to see if you can find it on DVD or watch out for any retrospectives in your local art-house cinema or TV/cable channel. In the event that none of these options turn up trumps, you may consider looking for it in bits and pieces on YouTube.
Here’s its trailer: