Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One expects ethnological insights in regional films from Third-World directors, but
in the remarkable feature Abouna we're treated to the work of a director with an
excellent eye for behavior, personal relationships and visual beauty. In a dry region of
Africa, two boys from a broken family try to make sense of their frustrating environment.
Without a single word of exposition, we're invited to share the personal lives of these
civilized little men as they bravely face their problems and make the best of things.
Chad. Young Tahir and Amine (Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa and Hamza Moctar Aguid)
wake to find their father gone and their mother Achta (Zara Haroun) unwilling to talk about
him. The boys court trouble by skipping school and looking for their father. Thinking they've
seen him in a movie, they break into the theater to steal the film to find him again. Mother
takes them to a distant Muslim school that only reinforces their will to escape and search
for their father, who an uncle says is in Morocco.
In a nicely shot interview extra, director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun explains that Abouna
is his second feature (the first was Bye Bye Africa) but the first shot on film.
The director's deceptively simple approach presents the world as experienced by these two
boys, who act so naturally we seem to be watching transparent behaviors instead of directed
Tahir is several years older and although the two scrap like puppies, their devotion is
complete. When we first meet them an apparently harmonious family situation has disintegrated;
father won't be there to referee their soccer matches any more. Mother sews in silence and
disappears on her scooter to work, and the unsupervised boys think that father will turn
up if they just look for him.
Mother tends to the sickly Amine and intercedes when they have trouble with the police, but
it's not long before the boys are relocated in a strange town under the watchful eye of a
religious teacher. Both are beaten for perceived insolence and an escape attempt that ends
because Anime gets a thorn in his foot. Tahir meets a girl who takes a fancy to him (Mounira
Kahlil); that and a solemn vow given over the Koran helps him decide not to run off after
all. But when the other boys steal Amine's asthma medicine, the honey remedy given by the
teacher's gentle wife doesn't help him to breathe ...
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun demonstrates a sure hand with his nonprofessional actors and
explains that before filming he had them live together for two weeks to develop a credible
rapport. They aren't poor boys - their clothing is simple but dignified - and they seem
to have a natural relationship with the landscape. We grow to like them without noticing
any emotional strings being tugged. The only aspect that seems imposed from without is
the director's interest in film, as the little theater in the boy's town is showing
Stranger than Paradise and Chaplin's The Kid, as if Chad had its own
mini-version of the Cinematheque Francais. At one point Amine tries to steal a film
still, as in Truffaut's Day for Night.
Director Haroun is based in Paris but his film crew appears to be genuinely African.
Although the pace is deliberate our attention is held by creative camerawork that need
make no apologies. The colors of the earthen buildings are warm and inviting and
sophisticated camera technique composes in depth and balances the light through windows
and archways - there are never any burned-out areas of the frame. Haroun's images have a
refreshing visual clarity that sidesteps merely pretty, travelogue effects. Chad looks
crisp, dry and clean.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of Abouna is beautifully transferred from perfect
prime elements. The enhanced image is rich and colorful; cameraman Abraham Haile Biru must
be a student of Winton Hoch in his use of wide exteriors and dark interiors cut by pools of
light. The modern African rhythm score is tastefully used. The language on the soundtrack
is Chad Arabic mixed with French.
Other extras besides Haroun's impressive interview are a trailer and two of his earlier short
films, Goï Goï and B 400. Phil Hall of Wired Magazine contributes
thoughtful and expressive liner notes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sound: Excellent Arabic and French (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)
Supplements: with director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun; Film
shorts Goï Goï & B 400; trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 17, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson