Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako. 2002.

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In Nouadhibou, a lonely and isolated village sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Sahara Desert in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Abdullah (Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamed), a seventeen-year old boy, arrives from Mali to visit his mother before leaving for Europe. Unable to speak the local Hassanya language and dressed only in Western clothes, he is a stranger in a strange land. The film is Waiting for Happiness, in which Mauritanian director Aderrahmane Sissako portrays the conflict between Western modernization and local African traditions, basing the story on his own experience of exile and return. It won the International Film Critics award for best film in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes in 2002. 

The film is virtually plotless and without dramatic arc, but filled with memorable images of a culture whose way of life is threatened by Western values. Feeling like an outcast, Abdullah sits by an open window watching a photographer taking portraits, a merchant selling veils, women singing and flirting, an Asian immigrant's karaoke serenading his girlfriend, and a mother playing the Kora while teaching traditional songs to her young daughter. He struggles to learn some Hassanya words from Khatra (Khatra Ould Abder Kader), a ten-year old electrician's apprentice, but his heart is not in it. The only bonds he establishes are with Nana, a prostitute who tells him her story of being rejected by her husband when she went to visit him in France. Abdullah finally agrees to dress in native clothes, but his awkward attempts to fit in only underscore his alienation. 

The film celebrates community, moving between characters and incidents to explore the traditions that the villagers want to preserve, and their struggle with symbols of progress. The electrician Maata (Maata Ould Mohamed Abeid) has difficulty getting electricity to work even with the help of his young apprentice Khatra. Maata tries to teach Khatra his trade, but without much success. In a touching sequence, after failing to install a light bulb in a primitive home, Khatra senses that his master is feeling bad, puts his arm around the old man's shoulders and tells him over and over again that everything's going to be all right. Maata is a surrogate father for the orphaned boy and instructs him in the ways of the world. In one moving scene, Matta tells him of a friend who sailed away to Spain and France, never to be heard from again, as Khatra falls asleep, resting his head against the old man's chest. 

Nouadhibou is a sort of limbo in which travelers wait to begin their journey abroad, the women wait for a husband, the boys wait to grow up, people come and go. Backed by the haunting music of Oumou Sangare, Sissako beautifully captures the day-to-day reality in a part of the world that has been hidden to Westerners. Images become transfixed in the mind: the windswept sand; a refugee's body washed ashore; a group of ominous-looking trawlers anchored off the coast slowly sinking in the mud; pristine whitewashed buildings shining in the West African heat; an old man walking in the desert carrying a flickering light bulb. Waiting For Happiness is a poignant meditation on the transience of life and the conflict between progress and tradition. Reminiscent of the films of Kiarostami in it's languid pace and use of nonprofessional actors, the film takes a while to get you in its grip, but when it does, it refuses to let go. 

Howard Schumann
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