Sunday, October 02, 2005

Blues in Haroun's Abouna

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Abouna is just about the best blues film you are likely to see. It tells the story of a couple of boys whose father has abandoned them, for reasons known only to their mother, who herself is not quite able to cope with raising the boys. It also speaks of a love for cinema, and the blues, especially the music of Ali Farka Touré. For the filming of Abouna, Haroun adopted the unconvential technique of choosing the music beforehand, and filming to fit the music he heard. This techinique does not interfere with the telling of the story or mar its integrity in any way, perhaps because as the author of the short story on which the screenplay is based, Haroun knew pretty well what needed to be told and what could be left unsaid.

One scene in the film, the scene outside the movie theatre, advertizes Haroun's indebtedness to Charlie Chaplin, Jim Jarmusch, and Idrissa Ouédraogo. Watching the film, I sensed a distant resonance with Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso, the Iranian new wave, and the films of Tran Anh Hung. And now that I think of it, Wong Kar Wai, whose approach is also very musical. Or Olivier Assayas for that matter. Actually, Tran's Mua he chieu thang dung revereberated throughout my viewing of Abouna, which was rather a distraction--I wouldn't want to make too much of it, but you may perhaps find the comparison illuminating. Although the music and the colors of the two films are quite different, and Tran deliberately intended to represent a Confuscian harmonic sensibility whereas Haroun's is explicitly, if accidentally, Taoist, both directors have brought a freshness and depth of feeling to the cinematic revelation of color. It's musicality is abundant. One is tempted to say lyrical or poetic, or introduce some gawdawful neologism, because watching it unfold feels like witnessing the birth of a cinematic language. All of the old metaphors stewn about, exhausted. I will call it cinesis, and let that mean what it means.

Haroun has said, strangely enough, that his favorite movie soundtrack is Ry Cooder's soundtrack to Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas. Strange, because it's sort of like a blues film without any blues. Actually there are some rather brilliant blues in Paris, apart from the story and the music, but their effect it seems to me is to heighten the intensity of the orange, the film's tonal center. Haroun, by contrast, uses orange to intensify the sense of blues, but strikingly, foregrounding highly saturated oranges and (and yellows and bright off-reds too), as well as presenting deep blues against desaturated orangish backgrounds, as one might expect. To a certain extent this is only natural, or naturalist, as Haroun intends to present a film about life in arid environments, but the adroit use of contrasting colors also signifies a deep psychological acumen, presenting us with a doorway into Haroun's humanistic project.

The beautiful, according to Haroun (see the interview on the DVD), is intended to deepen the sense of melancholy in the film, and this should help us appreciate the situation the characters find themselves in, and ultimately, one may presume, what it means to be human. A noble aim, one which Haroun largely achieves in my view. However, I can't quite bring myself to explicate the "objective correlative" that is an orange shirt by way of ordinary language. It's enough to make a grown man cry. Or a yak. That much I can say without spoiling it for you.

One thing I will also note is that there are allegorical meanings, religious and political, that are intended by the film. Haroun addressed those issues in an an interview for Filmmaker magazine.

Harris: But isn’t there also the issue of colonialism? The father — the organizing principal — leaves, and then what happens?

Haroun: Yeah, yeah. And that’s the most important thing for me: even if those responsible for our history leave, one must go on with one’s life. There’s a kind of emptiness after the father’s departure. But you have just to build yourself and be the center of your own life in this emptiness. And that’s what the older one of the kids tries to do in the film.

I was in London recently, and I heard that Africa is a “desperate continent” — something like that — and you go crazy when you hear that. For me, the most important thing for viewers to know is that the majority of Africans who live in Africa are trying to give sense to their lives, trying to build something, trying to study, to learn and to quietly get over these horrible things, their struggles.

If you don’t have a job, you don’t exist socially, you don’t have an identity. And so we have to respect these people who leave to look for jobs. Everybody has to look for a job, it’s the capitalist way.

posted by Fido the Yak at 3:45 AM.


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