Silhouette members discussed and debated Mauritanian film Heremakono aka Waiting for Happiness. Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, this African film is replete with visual charm, a smooth, slow narrative sailing and brilliant, unobtrusive collage of an African village. There is no singular narrative vantage point in the film which fleets and sweeps the audience off its feet with the grand fables of life and death. Silhouette recommends the film.
Amitava Nag, Anwesha Deb, Diptansu Sengupta, Doelpakhi Dasgupta
Things that worked:
Waiting for Happiness (original name Heremakono), African director Abderrahmane Sissako’s second feature film is set in an idyllic village in Mauritania, Africa. Surrounded by the Atlantic Sea and the Sahara desert the landscape of the place is arid yet bountiful in equal measures.
The film doesn’t have a specific linear narrative. Rather it has moments, slices of life in this slumber. We find a young Abdallah who has come back to the village but finds himself almost like an emigrant. He doesn’t or may have forgotten the local Hassaniya language; he sits mostly in a room with a small window at the bottom of a wall through which he gets to see only the feet of different people walking on the street or the abandoned shoes outside of a local prostitute’s room.
There is also an old electrician Mata who it seems was into sailing boats before changing a job to become an electrician. He probably doesn’t love his current job and fails to light up houses, a state he is himself into. He is accompanied by a small boy, an apprentice Khatra who may well be his grandson, we are not sure. Sissako rarely tells us the details. Consider the flashback of Nana, the prostitute about her daughter and ‘white’ lover who fathered the child and then film cuts back visually to her present paramour, a gift seller of Chinese origin. The information to the audience is hazy at the most; it is the moments that capture us. The camera fleets and floats in tandem with the lilting sands of the desert.
For Doelpakhi the film brings forth a relatively obscure culture of an unknown land. This ‘unknown’ provides us with a visual relief. The inherent rhythm of the slow, innate pace has its own intoxicating charm. She initially thought that the unique feature of the film may be its apparent lack of a storyline. But as the film progresses we come to know about at least two major plots of Mata-Khatra and Abdallah; the narrative is omni-present and camouflages itself within the collage of the village life. Doelpakhi relates to the sedate melancholia of the film – a lingering sadness within the colourful exterior of the surroundings primarily in the bright fabric.
Anwesha corroborates Doelpakhi’s views as she also believes that the use of fabric is symbolic as an opposite to the mundaneness of the villagers’ lives. Hence she finds it striking when at the end Khatra wears an electrician’s dress which is of solid-blue colour; earlier there are no solid-colours in the dresses of the characters. Does this signify Khatra’s coming of age, and may be of the entire village’s? Anwesha, Doelpakhi and others agree that Khatra is a revelation and so is his relationship with Mata.
Doelpakhi feels for Abdallah as well and the sadness of his alienation. He is alienated from his place and also from his mother. His coming back from an outer world to the village and shrinking his vision to the tiny window to the outer world and finally his breaking away to the vast expanse of sand dunes as we find him leaving with his suitcase work as a counterpoint – of returning and leaving, of having a tunnel vision of life and in trying to push the horizons.
For Diptansu the film is a tussle between the idea of belonging and that of a lack of the same. Most characters are in the cul-de-sac; Abdallah returns home only ready to leave, Mata tells us that he never wants to leave but we know he misses his boats and doesn’t love his job as an electrician, the two men who wish to leave for Europe but cannot, Nana goes out to Europe to her lover but has to return dejected by his rejection. Diptansu also feels that the radio which is shown in the first scene as being buried acts as a symbol of communication to the outer world, a world that lures all and traps them in its vortex.
Amitava highlights an element of projected hallucination of the characters as if they all act under a common spell of being displaced and the wish to renew adventures with their shelves. Anwesha recalls a later scene in the film after Mata dies and Khatra goes to the sea to throw away a bulb which floats back to him again – a striking scene that not only involves the sea actively in the film but also represents the circle of life. Diptansu also relates the flying shrubs with this impermanence of life.
For Amitava, the sea which is predominantly mute and the scenes with different number of ships in it, are significant. The ships play dual roles – as the vehicle of transportation as well as the sentinels of values and probably life. They are visually static but act as a metaphor for movement. To him, the unique factor of the film is that it doesn’t have a cinematic climax and yet has an emotional breakpoint; the director achieves this with sublime skills because seldom do you find different characters come in conflict with each other in the film. And yet, the loose narrative shapes up to a final crux and leaves us to understand not only the Mauritanian village life but the fissures in our own existences.
Things that didn’t work:
For Doepakhi and Diptansu there is nothing worth mentioning that doesn’t work in the film. For Anwesha, the subplot involving Nana’s current lover, the man of Chinese origin, is quite abrupt. Their subplot doesn’t shape up nicely and is like a wart in the otherwise seamless film. For Amitava, the overt usage of symbols, at times a bit blatant, hampered the film’s eloquence.
Parts of the film that will be remembered:
Doelpakhi and Amitava love the flying shrubs, the floating away of the lone bulb and returning with the waves, the brilliant colours of the African fabric, the colour scheme of the entire film and the geometrical patterns in the visual design. Doelpakhi along with Anwesha also remember the brilliant scenes where an old musician imparts singing lessons to a young girl. This tradition of knowledge sharing acts as a mirror to the relation between Mata and Khatra which is more on equal terms rather than hierarchical. Diptansu is touched by the sensitivity between Khatra and Mata where the roles of protector and protected, consoler and consoled are constantly being reversed.
Diptansu also observes the interplay of ‘Death’ as an idea that haunts and confronts human beings and how Mata and Khatra deal with the topic in idle leisure till Mata actually dies. In one poignant scene we find Khatra breaking down a lighted bulb by pelting a stone as if in a protest to defy the loss of Mata’s death.
Anwesha loves the musical backdrop in the film, the liberal usage of stringed instruments that render a rustic touch. She particularly remembers the scene where Khatra and Mata walk along together at dusk in the desert with a lighted bulb in Mata’s hand. This juxtaposes with the scene when Mata dies with the same lighted bulb in his hand as he bows down in the sand and readies himself to his impending end.
The other texts (films or otherwise) which come to mind watching this:
Anwesha and Diptansu emphasize that the unique feature of this film compels them not to find a parallel in other texts. The expansive night scenes lit with a magically resonant light prompts Doelpakhi to remember Once upon a time Anatolia by Turkish great Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Looking at Khatra, brilliantly acted out by Khatra Ould Abder Kader, she is reminded of Shrirang Mahajan who played Dnyanesh in Paresh Mokashi’s Elizabeth Ekadasi. The usage of the diverse, vibrant and rhythmic folk music relates to the documentary Lachto Drom on the culture and richness of folk music.
Amitava remembers Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. In the Ray film, an iconic moment comes when Apu for the first time sees a train, a machine he confronts for the first time. For Khatra, train is not unknown. Throughout Apu Trilogy, the train acts as a metaphor of moving away from the base, from loved ones, a symbol of restless detachment than of union. When Khatra wants to board the train he also, like most of the other villagers, wishes to flee but is unable to do so. He, like Apu, probably will have to wait to grow up and overcome the shackles that bind him to realize that every leaving ultimately ends in a return.
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