Mauritania-born Director Abderrahmane has been hailed as African cinema’s next big thing. Whether that translates into wide viewership is another story, considering his film opened in London last week without the attention it deserved. Not that his melancholy, poetic, ethereal Waiting for Happiness arrived in town like a circus, Kill Bill-style. Instead it arrived in a big, cynical city like London like the protagonist of the film: timid, displaced and not speaking quite the same language.
In Waiting for Happiness, seventeen-year-old Abdallah visits his native village before he sets off to Europe. This event serves as the pretext for the film’s exquisite visual tapestry and equally entrancing soundtrack, although Sissako avoids dwelling on it too much. Abdallah feels estranged from the place, not being able to speak the local dialect, and spends his time observing the timeless pace of the city through the frames of his mother’s house in this desert-like, windswept north-western part of Africa.
The story in the film resonates with the probable trajectory the film will have on the commercial circuit, despite having won the International Critics’ Prize in Cannes 2002. Like a precious stone, those who will love it will have to do a considerable amount of digging just to find it.
It’s difficult to recommend a film like this in the context of the story itself. We have to take Abdallah’s point of view and simply observe the townsfolk’s lives unravelling. We see a young girl being coached to sing traditional Arab music; a local handy man (Maata) trying to connect electricity to a house, with little success. He is helped by Khatra, a boy of six or seven, who helps Maata on his errands while infusing the film with a charm and humour that comes from his dream of owning a blue overall (a dream that we eventually see coming true).
We also meet Nana, a beautiful woman who is going through a melancholy phase inb her life, signified by frequent flashbacks to a romantic trip to Europe. Then there’s a Chinese man who is fond of karaoke, Abdallah’s mother and a roster of other fleeting characters which stock the film with faces while the ambiance, the mood and the general pace of the film does the rest.
Redolent of Italian Neo-realism, Waiting for Happiness completely goes against the grain of both contemporary mainstream and independent cinema. Subtle and philosophical, it requires poetic language to describe it. Like a lullaby wafting across the hazy afternoon of the metaphysical landscape it contains and is contained by, it takes the viewer to a universe that is timeless – perhaps the only temporal signifiers are the tacky gadgets the Chinese men sells, the old cars, the electricity. But it doesn’t seem like the director is concerned in showing a place that has resisted the encroachment of globalisation, or any other political issues for that matter – this is not a topical film. Rather it’s a director’s poetic gaze at people he knows and a place with which he is emotionally connected.