A young man returns to his small seaside village on the west coast of Africa, the kind of desolate but not unfriendly place that seems less impoverished than stranded in time. Although the village’s way of living may seem primitive and meager by European standards, its inhabitants aren’t starving and there’s a sense of community and tradition that keeps the peace.
The young man, Abdallah, looks to be barely 20, but he’s apparently been gone for a long time. He’s forgotten the native dialect and, cut off by his inability to communicate, he watches the locals like a curious and not entirely comfortable tourist. He spends much of his time at his mother’s house, lying on a couch and staring at a small street-level window as though it were a television. By the end of the film, Abdallah will have passed through his hometown without having emotionally reconnected to it. As the saying goes, you can’t go home again (though you can visit) — something which especially applies if you’ve tasted the world and your home is an obscure outpost just beyond the edge of civilization.
The above paragraph is a misleading representation of writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness, being cobbled together from small pieces of the film and the information given in the program notes provided to the reviewer (which, in the case of a film as narratively recondite as this one, gives him or her an unfair advantage over the civilian viewer). The film consists of short sequences, many too brief to even be called anecdotal, which slowly accrete into an overview of Abdallah’s village. It’s not that the film unfolds leisurely so much as that it doesn’t unfold at all. Sissako’s approach seems partly modernist (reminiscent at times of the work of Claire Denis at her most fragmented, e.g., in Beau Travail), a withholding of crucial information combined with a willful avoidance of linear development that’s distinctly avant-garde, and partly a personal style that reflects the free-floating pace of its setting.
Modernity is present in Abdallah’s village in the form of electricity and TV, but it exists alongside a tradition of telling stories and handing down songs in one-on-one sessions. Progress, for those willing to pay it any attention, has not so much improved their lives as it has added a discomforting tinge of anxiety. Abdallah watches a banal French quiz show on TV and it only increases his conviction that life is elsewhere. There’s a world of meaningless activity out there that can be seductive, if the best part of your day is spent lying in a hot hovel and staring out the window.
Aside from Abdallah, the two characters Sissako most closely follows are Maata, an elderly man who serves as the village’s electrician, and Kharta, his preadolescent assistant. Maata, carrying cable around the village in his native garb, is doggedly persistent and seems close to despair when a light bulb he has set up in Abdallah’s mother’s house refuses to come on. It’s as if it’s an affront to his role as the bearer of a new technology, though he’ll allow no equipment failures or personal lack of knowledge to impinge on his natural dignity. (At one point, the wire behind a woman’s house bursts into flames. “That,” he tells her sagely, “is what you call an electrical accident.”)
Kharta, apparently an orphan, looks up to Maata as a father figure and constantly pesters him for stories about the old man’s days as a seagoing fisherman.
The life of the village is rounded out by scenes that are nearly anthropological, as when groups of men and women are shown sitting on opposite sides of a room engaging in some double-entendre flirting — oddly comical, as when an Asian man (whose presence is unexplained) impresses a young black woman with his off-key karaoke singing, or suggestively sinister, as when a body washes ashore and the police question a witness who seems almost too stunned to speak.
The cohering factor here is Sissako’s style, which is both acutely observational and dreamlike. As with a lot of elliptical films, you either begin to empathize with its slow-pulse, nonrevelatory approach or else you begin to fidget. In either case, you may not be left with much of a story, but the film’s sense of place is indelible.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.