HEREMAKONO (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2002)

A reminiscence, a village portrait, and a satirical meditation on globalization, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Heremakono is a stunning film from Mauritania.

Sissako was born in Mauritania and grew up in neighboring Mali, in Northwest Africa. He lived for ten years in Moscow, where he studied film, and he now lives in France. Heremakono is set in the coastal village of Nouadhibou, where the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic Ocean, the path to Europe, meet. Sissako himself paused there before proceeding to the Soviet Union. Abdallah, the 17-year-old boy who stops in Nouadhibou en route to Europe (presumably Russia) in this film, is based on Sissako. The housing in Nouadhibou is makeshift, as it is in Mali, where it’s called heremakono, which means waiting for happiness. (Waiting for Happiness is the title of the DVD in the U.S.) The implication is that no one in Nouadhibou is much more “settled” than the visiting Abdallah; everyone there is, theoretically, in transit, en route to a happier life. In truth, many of the inhabitants, and not just older ones, are stuck there. They’re going nowhere. Their lives aren’t exactly their own because their lives are what they would have had had they gotten out.

One of the themes of Heremankono is homelessness whether one is where one comes from or elsewhere; human emotions being the complex things they are, one can be waiting for happiness in one’s homeland or mourning the loss of happiness (which perhaps never existed) elsewhere in the big, wide world. An episode in the film details a disastrous and tragic emigration; happiness sometimes never comes. But Abdallah is still free to hope that he will find a home elsewhere. Paris-educated, he is certainly not at home in his homeland, where he can’t even speak the language, Hassaniya; and indeed, because it’s a makeshift, transitional village, Nouadhibou is for everyone there, in a sense, a homeland of homelessness. Maata, an older villager, long ago rejected the single opportunity he had to leave with a friend. His mysterious death in the dunes ends a life of repressed, embittered regret. Another man has been found dead, perhaps washed up on shore—someone, like Abdallah, perhaps bound for Europe. Somehow death doesn’t seem such a rupture when the living are not quite living themselves.

Yet for all the melancholy underscored by the persistent lapping sound of the ocean surrounding the isolated village, and for all the backwardness there underscored by the momentousness of Maata’s purchase of an electric light bulb that he and Khatra, the orphaned six-year-old boy he cares for and who likewise takes care of him, try mightily to wire up so that it works, there is something touchingly admirable about the villagers’ simple, largely uncomplaining lives. As her mentor, perhaps her mother, plays the kora, a West African folk instrument similar to a lute, a young girl, mimicking her, learns something of the region’s traditional music. This incident—or, rather, incidences interspersed throughout the film—is typical of the film’s complexity. This traditional education will likely help limit the girl’s prospects to the village; at the same time, it registers an implicit protest to the karaoke music that has entered the village and, beyond that, to the intrusion of French influence that, more than forty years after Mauritania gained its independence from French West Africa, has perniciously revived as a result of globalization. Emblematic of this is the ludicrous game show beamed in on French television that reminded me more of the vapid televised political commercials in John Ford’s The Last Hurrah (1958) than of the ominous TV quiz show in Brian DePalma’s Sisters (1973). There is also an interesting dearth of references to the Muslim faith.

There are numerous shots in the film inside Abdallah’s mother’s adobe hut through whose low square window, itself like a TV screen, villagers pass by. These shots emphasize the boy’s alienation from simple village life, whose monotony is tempered by the vivid colors of girls’ and women’s garments. Indeed, the intoxicating beauty of veils and other laundered fabrics hung out to dry suggests a deliberate compensation, conscious or otherwise, for largely colorless and lonely lives that, socially, consist of endless cigarette smoking and tea-drinking. Abdallah’s experience at exile, hence travel, is encapsulated by the proficiency with which he packs his suitcase before leaving his mother with exceptionally little fuss from either of them. In the kind of minimalist film that Sissako has made, a detail like that stands out particularly well. Much of the rest of the film details all manner of things (like speaking his native language) that the boy can’t do well. Too, a fine two-shot sequence underscores how lost Abdallah feels at home. In his mother’s hut, he is wearing pajamas that are made from the identically patterned fabric with which the the bench or couch behind him is covered. In the next shot, the camera, positioned farther back, reveals that every piece of furniture in the room is covered with the same cloth. Abdallah’s face silently expresses the feeling that his figure is being lost to, swallowed up by, the (back)ground.

Sissako’s minimalist style also brings sharp and haunting emphasis to the film’s principal symbol: the light bulb. Khatra, who is as much the main character of the film as is Sissako’s surrogate, Abdallah, is shown running to the electrician with the purchased bulb because, since it won’t light, Maata believes it’s defective. It isn’t, and eventually Khatra, a truly resourceful little boy, gets it to work. Later, in his death march at night in the dunes, Maata is carrying the light bulb, which enigmatically is lit. Finally, a light bulb—is it the same one?; it appears larger—washes up on shore, to be appropriated by Khatra. Perhaps the light bulb symbolizes a world of new possibilities that Maata is too old to be part of and Khatra cannot be part of so long as he is connected to Maata. In this context, Maata’s death suggests a sacrifice that Maata is making for Khatra’s sake (the past’s sacrifice for the future, as in Ford’s The Searchers and Andrzej Munk’s Man on the Tracks, both 1956), as well as an expression of despondency over the closed nature of a life almost exclusively filled by Maata’s attachment to Khatra.

There’s a terrible irony that explodes as the train roaring into the area shatters the quietude that has graced the film. Khatra tries to get out by boarding the train but is officially tossed off; despite all his preparations, we never see Abdallah board the train. Life’s frustration of human aspiration, one of the thematic hallmarks of the great Japanese cinema of Yasujiro Ozu, concludes Waiting for Happiness on a devastating note. At the same time we bring to what we see both the hope that Khatra will succeed in leaving in a future attempt and the knowledge that Sissako himself did reach Moscow, enabling him (by his study of filmmaking) to make the very film we are watching. By what he shows (Khatra’s failure to leave) and what he doesn’t show (Abdallah’s departure), Sissako sustains the mood and theme of suspended lives that the film’s title implies. Moreover, the harsh sound of the chugging train echoes the fierce windstorm with which the film began, creating a kind of closed circle in which the interior quietude of the majority of the film resides—this, an aural correlative to the village’s isolation and transitional, expectant nature. Winds and trains both move, taking things and people out of the “closed circle” I have described. The train at the end is boarded by numerous passengers, while, in addition to shifting desert sand, the wind in this film, in a signature and powerful shot, lifts up a clump of brush—a poetic use of Nature to evoke human aspiration.

Sissako is a great visual artist, and, assisted by his phenomenal color cinematographer, Jacques Besse, he has created one remarkable image after another. Pale purple and either pale or vivid yellow are the predominant colors, and the diaphanous quality and the luminescence of long-shots of fog-enshrouded ships, as well as of other distant, beckoning scenes, dozens of times recall watercolors by nineteenth-century English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner—many more occurrences than can be attributed to accident or coincidence. These evocations of Turner have the effect of associating travel from Mauritania with the ethereal, underscoring the difficulty of translating aspiration into practical reality.

Many of the characters share the first name of the actors who play them, which usually indicates a nonprofessional cast. There isn’t a faulty performance in the film.

Heremakono is an even more beautiful film than Sissako’s 1998 Life on Earth, from Mali. Despite blowing sands that discourage the gleaning of any sort of didacticism, there is indeed a message underpinning its bounty of images: that globalization can escape being deleterious only if the world’s nations are equally developed and, politically and socioeconomically, equally endowed. The widest circumference of meaning in the film relates the fragile village to the outside world symbolized by train and ships. There’s an omipresent sense of the bullying of Nouadhibou.

Heremakono won the International Critics’ Prize at Cannes in 2002, the Grand Prize at the 2003 Pan-African Film Festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and the best film prize at the 2003 Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema.

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