Dir: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. Chad 2002. 81mins.
An engaging, low-key coming-of-age story that rings the emotional changes with confidence elegance, the second feature from Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, the director of Bye Bye Africa, is a tender, accessible piece that has better prospects for wide exposure than any African feature in a long while. Good word of mouth should give it a modest shot on the specialised distribution circuit, but its future as a warmly-received festival favourite seems assured.
The film begins slightly more surreally than it continues, as a man walks across scrubland carrying an attache case, then turns and looks enigmatically into the camera before heading off. He is the father of two boys, 15-year-old Tahir (Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa) and eight-year-old Amine (Hamza Moctar Aguid) who return to their modest home one day to find Dad vanished - just when he had promised to referee their football match. The brothers, who enjoy a close, mutually supportive relationship, find their happy life disrupted. They set out to find him, looking in the factory where he used to work, only to find that he had been unemployed for two months, and was only been pretending to clock in (proof that the situation depicted in Nicole Garcia's Competition film L'Adversaire and Laurent Cantet's recent L'Emploi du Temps is not just a French phenomenon). Troubled, the two boys think they see their father in a film at the local cinema, and steal the reel to scan it for his image. As a result, their loving but increasingly impatient mother (Zara Haroun) sends them off to a Koran school to knock some sense into them. The brothers' rebellious stance gets them into trouble with the school's tough-love regime, while Amine's asthma problems take the film towards an unexpected tragic turn.
Despite its fantasy touches, Abouna is a well-observed, highly controlled realist exercise that shows an everyday modern Africa - venues include a cinema with lobby posters paying homage to Jim Jarmusch and Idrissa Ouedraogo. The bridge at the Chad-Cameroon border grounds the film in geographic reality, while a poster of the Moroccan shore gives a sense of the imaginative geography that fuels the boys' dreams. Haroun sketches out the boys' trauma with delicate strokes, never over-stressing the drama of their situation: one of his great skills as a director is a sense of ellipsis, trusting the audience to make necessary connections and leading us from episode to episode with smooth economy. He also has a way of switching emotional registers with unusual smoothness, towards the end of the film slipping from tragedy to euphoria and back to a more sombre closing note.
The film is tightly shot by Abraham Haile Biru, using the bright orange of Amine's shirt as a warm keynote that runs through the film. The two male leads are absolutely winning presences, with the older Moussa in particular ringing new emotional changes towards the end. There are also some crisply-observed minor characters who slip through briefly, notably various Koran-school boys, and a jovial guitar-playing uncle, while Mounira Khalili makes a strong impression towards the end as a deaf-mute girl who takes a shine to Tahir and accompanies him on his coming-of-age journey. A sparse but cutting score by virtuoso Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure adds the spice that makes Abouna a very winning piece, and should add to its prospects as one of the most approachable African features in a long time.
Prod co: Duo Films
Fr dist: MK2
Int'l sales: MK2 International
Scr: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Cinematography: Abraham Haile Biru
Ed: Sarah Taouss Matton
Prod des: Laurent Cavero
Music: Ali Farka Toure
Main cast: Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa, Hamza Moctar Aguid, Zara Haroun, Mounira Khalil, Koulsy Lamko