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Waiting for Happiness

New Yorker Video // Unrated // June 12, 2007
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted July 3, 2007 | E-mail the Author
Waiting for Happiness will not bowl you over with a barrage of dramatic stringency. From the graceful, leisurely opening, that's obviously not the intent. Instead, this African film from director Abderrahmane Sissako is a subtle and sweeping snapshot of cultural and technological assimilation. It's a non-directional drama, a beautifully undefined portrait analogous to the sands captured within its frames.

The Film:

Venturing into the world of Waiting for Happiness is strongly akin to waltzing into the memories and wispy remnants of many residents' thoughts from time's past. In this little corner of the world named Nouhadhibou, activity is minimal; but, alas, that's the way of this steadfast, unfalteringly cultural environment. A collegiate student named Abdallah returns to his home for a fleeting time before travel, adorned in the untraditional clothing of the modern world while his relatives and other family wear the more fitting garbs of his people. He's unable to harness the ways of this world, even amidst some familiar faces.

Several other segments filter into his return, including the relationship between an older, wise man and a younger boy named Khatra as an electrical team set to wire the town with light. It's a gentle, authoritative relationship between an embittered elder and an exploring, albeit nosey, younger child willing to push boundaries for "sociological" discovery. Atop their struggle, there's a poignant absorption of a young girl and her desire to learn the joys of music. If more "description" could be given for each of these relationships, then they would appear in these words.

But plot complexity isn't where Waiting for Happiness stands rooted. In fact, most of the film's gliding nature doesn't rely upon the revelations from the story itself. Conversely, Sissako's graceful drama maintains a solid state of gumption through the character interrelation and individual development. You can literally see the growth and budding, like a desert flower, coming from each character no matter the age. Most importantly, it takes a span of time to ensnare this film as well.

Waiting for Happiness probably won't be a cinematic experience that'll instantly snatch up all cinema lovers' attention within the first sprawling moments. In fact, it takes a stride at the beginning to build trust and beauty within the audience. Because, frankly, a film with such superb grace can take some time to impress. The wide, swirling shots of a gorgeous desert land strictly confined to more naturalistic times can be difficult to mold with, even when in awe of the beauty and quaintness.

What isn't realized at the start is how well Waiting for Happiness, with all its static majesty, gradually seeps into the mind and soul of the viewer. A tight bond grows with the characters, and not with just our prodigal son. There's something blooming within each and every one that we grow with, understand, and wrap ourselves around. In a sense, this community takes us into the inner workings much like a stranger wandering in the desert. And, like a truly accepted member of this weaving familiar dynamic, we see the successes and failures, as well as the high times and the low. Quite frankly, once this little township let me into its mechanics, I couldn't peel my eyes away. Simple activities, like a small language lesson and the wiring of a home with a light bulb shine with glistening joy.

Though much activity doesn't shine its light in this film, there is plenty of interwoven complexities - or, at least, that's what my mind perceived. See, many spaces are left blank in Waiting For Happiness. It's not a film where every single connection, statement, and chronological event is stamped out in legibly bold text. We don't know for how long our protagonist sticks around his old stomping grounds or, even, whether the events taking place are chronological. Sissako begs us, strongly enticing us, to give our brains a workout and think about each character (especially our collegiate student) and where they might go next.

Instead of just ending up a muddled mess that such a film could be, the strong performances, sweeping scenery, and adherently intriguing motives of each character make Waiting for Happiness a pure joy to watch. It's plodding and smooth as silk in pace; but, Sissako has tried to provide us with a realistically sharp perception on our boy Abdallah's return. It's sometimes difficult to remember that this isn't a documentary about Nouhadhibou. But with such a concentrated directorial style coated with a firm grasp on the reality of this scenario, it might as well have been.

The DVD:

New Yorker Video has packaged Waiting For Happiness in a standard keepcase DVD with tasteful coverart. Also included is a very exquisite fold-out insert containing the chapter listing including a directorial discussion regarding the film.

The Video:

Though beautifully shot, the video quality of Waiting for Happiness isn't one for the record books. This is an anamorphic disc, possessing some strong glimmers of detail in specific portions, though. Most of the beautiful scenery does look quite elegant and warming to the eyes. However, there's a myriad of little digital issues that arise. Many edges show digitization (pixelization, jaggedness, etc) and some edge enhancement. It's to such a degree that it is a bit distracting at times - but not often. Plus, the image is just, in general, predominately blurry. Now, granted, there's probably not a lot that can be helped from the source material. This is a film that could probably benefit from some further refinement in the transfer portion. However, even though it needs just a small boost, the image is still pretty nice.

The Audio:

Equally received with mixed emotions is the Dolby 2.0 Stereo track. What really jumped out about the aural presentation was the rich musical culture that rattled and strummed through the speakers. Though it all sounded relatively weighed down, a lot of the quality echoed through the presentation quite well. It's within the vocals that the audio troubles pop up here and there. At times, the voices sounded washed out and a shade indiscernible. Since this probably doesn't affect enjoyment to most viewers since the language is a mix of French and Hassanya dialects with English subtitles, then the glimmering positives of the generally strong track should get the job done for most. The English subtitles are optional.

The Extras:

Foremost, a short Introduction is included from director Sissako and the executive director of the Tribeca Film Festival, Peter Scarlet. It's a nice watch - one I would have enjoyed before the film starts. However, when reviewing discs, it's always in the back of my mind to make certain the introductions aren't littered with spoiler-ish points. This one, however, is a great starting point.

As a continuation of the introduction, Mr. Scarlet flows into a full-blown Interview with Sissako in shifting dialects. To say the least, hearing Sissako explicate his film is a joy. He's extremely well spoken and quite insightful. He has true passion for his work that echoes wondrously through his words.

Also included is a collection of Director's Notes that discuss many intrinsic and extrinsic factors regarding the plot and village history. It sheds even further light upon the enveloping narrative that we almost inherently assumed during the film.

Rounding out the special features is a Director's Bio and Trailers for both Waiting for Happiness and Bomako.


Final Thoughts:

Abderrahmane Sissako has delivered a little work of glistening beauty here. Swirling with the same sandy, gentle disposition as the land, Waiting for Happiness flutters with poignancy amidst the intricate, everyday activity of an African village suitable for resting nomads. It can trickle on the line of tedium with some of the slower portions, but all is forgiven for such a special treat from start to finish. Highly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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