African filmmaking is alive and well, judging by the two features in ArtMattan and Facets' Great African Films - Volume 1 disc set. Although partially French-produced, the directors are African. Haramuya and Faraw! are polished productions that show African life from the inside out, with a local sensitivity.
In 1995's Haramuya director Drissa Toure presents a complex view of life in Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, formerly the French colony known as Upper Volta. The city has a mix of the modern and ancient and a slum rife with unemployment and prostitution. A dozen interesting characters intersect to demonstrate the collapse of both tribal and religious traditions. Fousseini (Fatogoma Konate) is the patriarch of a family living under the old rules. His older son is a married film projectionist whose motorbike is stolen at a café. A friend with local crime contacts manages to get it quickly returned, as the people who guard bikes for money appear to be part of the same organization that steals them. The son is supposed to hand over his salary to his father, but his wife has been hoarding it instead. Following tradition, when Fousseini is paid, he gives most of the money to his father.
Fousseini finds work for his younger son, Kalifa (Abdoulaye Kaba) in a factory run by a friend. The boy hangs out with some unemployed pals that introduce him to marijuana. Stealing for money to impress these friends, Kalifa is caught and fired. Fousseini sends him to study with a Muslim teacher.
Another enterprising young man is forced by the police to become an informer, and prowls the slums in search of illegal trade, mostly in drugs. As almost everyone not gainfully employed is some kind of illicit middleman, the informer's potential targets are many.
Kalifa is in love with a girl who arrives by car every day to attend school. Her father is French and manages a prosperous business. The informer proves that this Frenchman is a big wheel in the drug trade, but the police know he's connected to the finance minister and decline to jeopardize their jobs by arresting him. The Frenchman's daughter is unhappy that he brings home a prostitute to sleep with, and leaves home to search for her mother, who runs a brothel in the slums.
Fousseini believes that only Muslim fundamentalism can save his people, but the old ways seem to be in decline. The Muslim teacher foolishly trades in drugs and is arrested. As per old custom, a Muslim councilman tells the teacher's two wives that he's unworthy, and that they will now belong to him. Rather than meekly submitting, the women tell the councilman to mind his own business and go away. Meanwhile, the devout Fousseini cannot keep the young people from dancing, and Kalifa and the Frenchman's little girl see each other in secret, unsupervised.
Drissa Toure directs Haramuya with calm assurance, threading the little dramas to present the rhythms of daily life in the slum city. Many sequences are filmed from an unobtrusive camera dolly; cameraman Fran¸ois Kuhnel's work is quite good. The majority of the actors are clearly nonprofessionals but the film compensates with a feeling of authenticity. Haramuya is also politically even-handed, detailing Ougadougou's web of corruption without outrage. These are the conditions under which the poor must live.
The DVD of Haramuya is a satisfactory flat transfer with serviceable, if not impressive color and sound. The only extra is a text screen stating the film's intention to show conditions in the big cities instead of the usual rural images.
Faraw! Mother of the Dunes (1997) hails from the Saharan deserts of Mali, where director Abdoulaye Ascofaré presents a less complicated but equally compelling drama. Zamiatou (Aminata Ousmane) is a proud woman who by rights should be overwhelmed by misfortune. Feeble-minded and helpless after a prison sentence, her husband is probably a victim of torture. Her two small sons argue and fight over their tiny meals; the government isn't processing the father's pension money and news comes that even working civil servants are not being paid. The grocer will extend no more credit, so Zamiatou considers allowing her daughter Hayerata (Safiatou Mahamane) to work in the foreign district where some of her friends earn a living. When they go there together, Zamiatou realizes that the lonely Frenchmen working at the mines pay the young girls as maids but use them as prostitutes. Although Hayerata wants the work anyway, Zamiatou must beat her daughter to force her back home.
The simple story is told without technical tricks; we watch and learn about these proud and beautiful people. The aging Zamiatou is tall and strong and never despairs of her husband's bad fortune. When she praises Allah, she also loudly proclaims that the government is not to blame, apparently to avoid political denunciation. The foolish daughter sees the 'comfort' girls receiving attention from the Frenchmen and decides that the work will be pleasant. Only Zamiatou has the experience and sense to step in to save her daughter's soul.
Zamiatou finally takes a long walk to visit a man who was once her suitor. He sympathizes and gives her a donkey while his own wife watches unhappily from a distance. He begs Zamiatou to play a violin-like instrument for him once again, but she tells him he had his chance years ago. With the donkey Zamiatou can carry good spring water to thirsty miners, and she earns some money. It's hard work, but Zamiatou will do what is necessary to keep her family together.
The script of Faraw! reportedly combines stories by the director and Aliou N'Doye. Ascofaré indulges in a fanciful dream sequence, in which Zamiatou encounters the wife of her old suitor and some strange red-cloaked dwarves. Zamiatou assures the woman that she has not stolen her husband's heart and tries to return the violin. Even in the Sahara, film directors seem to think that dream sequences require dwarves!
ArtMattan and Facets' disc of Faraw! Mother of the Dunes is a marginally acceptable transfer and encoding. Color and sharpness are adequate, if not exceptional, but analog tape hits crop up now and then along with some film-based imperfections. As we are immediately engaged in the problems of the admirable Zamiatou, the flaws are fairly easy to overlook.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Great African Films, Vol. 1 rates:
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