A man walks into the frame, turns around, looks straight into the camera and then turns and walks off into the desert. This is the first scene of Abouna a film about about two brothers - 15-year-old Tahir (Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa) and eight-year-old Amine (Hamza Moctar Aguid) - in the country of Chad who deal with life after their father disappears.
At first his disappearance is merely an annoyance because he is absent from a soccer game that he was supposed to referee. But in time the two boys realise that he won't be back any time soon especially when they find out that he had been lying about his job for over two years. Their mother is silent about it. Soon the kids become a burden to her and she realizes that she cannot raise them alone.
In one of the film's better scenes the boys go to the movie theatre and think they see their father in the film they are watching. They decide to go and steal the film and look for his image. But this act comes with a strict penalty; Their mother sends them to a Koran school orphanage.
There they face a tough time especially when they try to escape; an act that leads to whippings. Abouna has all the makings of a rather bleak movie - and it has it's gloomy moments - but despite the subject matter director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun manages to keep things optimistic and occasionally humorous.
The pacing is slow but sure. Haroun doesn't force the pace; instead he lets the desert locale define the pace. And he often uses wide shots and moments of silence to set the tone.
Most of the actors are amateurs but they are all comfortable in front of the camera and seem natural to the environment. Plus, their naturalness gives the film a feeling of authenticity. The film production is very good and it's obvious that the financing was better for this film than it is for many films that come out of Africa.
If there is any drawback to Abuona it is that the tone shifts considerably in the final half-hour. So much so that the story begins to rush along and gets quickly edited with many scene location shifts. It fits the story that is being told but somewhat defies the film's pace and logic. In some cases it feels as though the last half hours could have been a whole hour.
Still Abouna is a good film that deals with the realities of absent fathers and the women and children who must bear the burden of their absence. The director succeeds in putting both a realistic and a positive spin on the situation.
The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and it looks splendid. The mostly outdoor locals and natural lighted scenes look fine. The DVD has been enhanced for 16:9 televisions.
Audio is in stereo in Chad Arabic. The music is mostly acoustic guitar by Ali Farka Toure which adds a spareness to the tale. The audio quality is very good.
There is a informative interview with director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun that last for 22 minutes. He talks about the difficulty of shooting in Africa and gives a good background on the film's production as well as the film's very realistic base. According to him many children grow up fatherless because the men often leave the country of Chad for better work elsewhere. There are also two short films by the director. First up is Goi Goi a ten minute short about a dwarf who goes to get revenge on his wife for cheating on him. It is low budget but looks good and is a darkly humorous film. The other is B 400 a 3 minute film about a little girl who gets stuck outside her apartment building and is unable to reach the code box to be let back in. There is alsa an original theatrical trailer that last 1 min 20 second. There are also liner notes by Phil Hall who writes for Film Threat.
Abouna is an African film that is realistic, heartfelt and has a spare cinematic style. The film - and DVD - has good production value and a good story that manages to be a punch to the gut and optimistic at the same time.