Waiting For Happiness Review
Waiting For Happiness is the second feature from the Mauritanian born director of the acclaimed Life on Earth. The idea for his latest film existed as an outline treatment on the theme of exile and travel, and the resulting cultural displacement this entails. To this theme the director has brought some characters, either based on people he knew or using non-professional actors, letting their characteristics and experiences direct the progression of the film.
As a consequence of this approach, there is not really much of what you would normally expect as a film plot and, with an enormous cultural and social gulf between western and Africa thought, much of the symbolism and significance of scenes is not even easily readable in the film. Several principal characters do emerge. The film is set in a town (Nouadhibou, although it is not named in the film) close to the sea, a place of transit, where ships dock and many Africans make their escape to a new world. Occasionally it brings people in as well, but this is a rarer occurrence. Abdallah is one person who come back, a young man who has returned to his home town and is staying at his mother’s house. Disassociated from home for so long, he feels uncomfortable and finds it difficult to relate to the people there, scarcely even knowing his native language. Khatra is a young boy who helps him learn a few words of the language again and who is the communicating force in the film. He works for his father, Maata, helping him install electricity into the houses – bringing light to the people, a symbol that is very evident throughout the film.
There are many other characters in the film who also convey this sense of transition and movement. Nana tells a story of a trip to Paris to tell the father of her child that the young girl had died. Significantly, Paris looks otherworldly, shot in grainy stock, with none of the traditional images of the city. The trip is more of an emotional one and the story is representative of the desire of the people in the town to reach out beyond - to have both a place and a goal to aim towards. There are many other characters and situations, some of them easier to read than others. Some people leave and never return, leaving gaps in friends and relatives’ lives – one of them returning as a dead body washed up on the beach. The scenes themselves are simple and beautiful – the colours, the costumes, the veils, the striking desert sandscapes – but their contribution to the narrative flow of the film is not always comprehensible.
The picture quality really couldn’t be better. It’s not just that the film has been well transferred to DVD – an almost flawless 1.66:1 anamorphic print – it is also photography of the location and the people that make for a stunning image. The frame is always alive with colour and amazingly detailed, realistic skin-tones. The desert light allows for vivid daylight shots and haunting crepuscular scenes – all captured superbly by the cinematographer and faithfully transferred to DVD.
The audio quality is fine. The sound is clear, presented on the Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack
Abderrahmane Sissako interview (26:00)
In French with fixed English subtitles, the director talks about the themes of the film and how they relate to him personally – born in Mauritania, growing up in Mali, educated in Moscow and then living in France, the themes of self-imposed exile and the difficulties this causes in relating to home would be obvious. It is not always clear however what Sissako is talking about – the interviewer’s questions have been inexplicably edited out, leaving the interview as a series of disjointed random thoughts. I think I preferred the text interviews on older Artificial Eye releases.
Abderrahmane Sissako biography
A short biography is included with the director's filmography listing the director's short-film, documentary, TV and feature film work.
Short Film: Octobre (36:08)
Sissako's first short film from 1992 is another examination of the relationship between African and western society. Set in Moscow, Irina finds she is pregnant by her black African boyfriend, who she has to mysteriously keep hidden from her neighbours. But for a few frames, the short film is in black and white, 1.33:1 aspect ratio and appears to be shot on 16mm. Quality is reasonably good, although there are video-sourced artefacts and the English subtitles have a large black border, presumably to mask French subtitles of the Russian dialogue. A rather abstract and obscure piece.
Waiting For Happiness is not an easy film to follow but it contains many interesting themes and poetic images. In the way that the film challenges you to consider how a film should be made and how it can find different ways to convey themes, it reminds me very much of Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown. Like that film however, I found Waiting For Happiness to be hard work for little gain, but I enjoyed it for its otherworldly exoticism and I am glad that there are directors willing to make challenging and thought-provoking films like this. The quality of the film transfer to DVD and the extra features are fabulous - much more than you would reasonably expect for such a minority-appeal film.