FARAW!/MOTHER OF THE DUNES (1997M Mali, 90 min.), directed by Abdoulaye Ascofaré; screenplay by Abdoulaye Ascofaré; cinematography by Yorgos Arvanitis; edited by Mohamed Meziane and Abdoulaye Ascofaré; music by Harouna Barry and Ibrahim Dicko; with Aminata Ousmane (Zamiatou, the Mother), Saflatou Makamane (Hareyrata, the daughter), Balla Moussa Keita (Father), Oumar M'Barek (Seybata, the elder son), Hamel M'Barek (Alhadar, the younger son), Ali Daalo (Morou), Salley Harouna ("The Rival," Morou's wife). In Songhoï with English subtitles.
Abdoulaye Ascofaré spent four years making this fictional homage to his mother, who died in 1994 while the final scenes were being prepared for filming. It's a day in the life of a simple, yet in many ways extraordinary traditional woman.
The film opens with the sun rising upon yet another day of misery for Zamiatou and her family. Zamiatou is saddled with an infirm husband, who, we later learn, lost his health and his mental capacity as a result of many years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. He needs constant nursing. Their compound is relatively large, but it is bare, with no animals at all--a sure sign of a once-prosperous family that now has nothing. Her two young sons (Seybata and Alhadar) are a constant strain for her, always fighting, getting into mischief, asking her painful questions, and delighting in taunting their older sister. The sister, Hareyrata, a pretty girl who will soon be leaving the household for an arranged marriage, is another source of worry for the mother. In many ways she is a typical teenager--proud, easily embarrassed by her family's poverty, sick of her younger brothers, and tired of being dependent. She is nowhere near ready to be the head of her own household.
. However, despite her poverty, Zamiatou does have resources--great inner strength, patience, faith, and wisdom. She shares her wisdom with those around her, and hopes that some of it will rub off.
Zamiatou tries to get the local storekeeper to continue to extend credit, telling him she has been assured that her husband's pension will soon be forthcoming. The storekeeper knows better, however, and deep down so does she. Her husband has been destroyed by a corrupt government system, and she will find no relief from that same government. She must look within. She tries to find work at the nearby European settlement, inhabited by expatriate Europeans who run the nearby mines and quarries. She assures them in her rudimentary French that she is able and hard-working. However, these foreign sleazeballs only want domestics who are young, beautiful, and willing to offer "comfort"; they are more than willing to take her fresh, lovely daughter, but not her.
Hareyrata, eager to be an adult, help her family, and simultaneously gain access to the dream-world of Western luxury, is more than willing to give herself over to Europeans. Zamiatou must literally wrestle her away from this temptation, which would certainly have eased their troubles but would have robbed them of all moral bearings. She instead takes a different kind of risk herself and goes to Morou, whom she nearly married twenty years before and who is still in love with her. She convinces him to give her a donkey, so that she can become a water-vendor. In so doing, she arouses his dormant passions (he gives her the nyanyer violin that she once played for him, which he has held on to all these years); she also provokes the jealousy of his wife, which clearly bothers her, but she is willing to act in this shameful manner (though she does not accede to his entreaties, her coming to him for help is inappropriate) for the sake of her family.
For the remainder of the day, she goes about her new-found business--fetching water, selling it, bartering it for grain. It as if she knows instinctively where to find the sweetest water, and in selling it she is providing a real, human service both to herself and to her customers. She has found the inner wellsprings of resilience and ingenuity that will bring nourishment to them all. It is dark when she returns home, and her family is all asleep, confident in her return.
With the closing of the film, we have come full circle. Just as the film opened with the sun rising upon another day of misery. it ends with the dawn of a new day, with renewed possibilities and hope. Much has changed, much has stayed the same. As Zamiatou would say, it's all in the hands of Allah. Still, this film shows us that to a great extent, we can still have a hand in our own fate.
Abdoulaye Ascofaré was born in 1949 in Gao, the once proud capital of the great Songhai empire, located on the Niger River in northeastern Mali. He studied theater, worked in radio, then won a fellowship to study filmmaking in the Soviet Union (as did many future African directors) In 1984 he graduated from the State Institute of Cinema in Moscow. He taught at the Institut des Arts in Bamako in 1985 and became a film maker in the Centre National de Production Cinématographique of Bamako in 1985. He has directed several short films: Welcome (1981), M'sieur Fane (1983), The Host (1984), and Sonatam, A Quarter of a Century (1990). Faraw! is his first full-length feature. It won the Best Female Actor Award for Aminata Ousmane at FESPACO 1997 and was shown at Cannes 1997 (Semaine Internationale de la Critique).
Faraw! was shot in Mali, with lengthy post-production in Morocco. For his cinematographer, he was able to bring in Yorgos Arvanitis, the regular cinematographer of acclaimed Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, and the results are impressive. Filmed with a sure-handed, unobtrusive camera, Faraw! manages to capture the sense of immense space just at the borders of village life. Ascofaré has said that he was trying "to replicate . . . the way the desert's calm but persistent rhythm dominates the characters' lives and controls their destiny." The director has expressed his concern (to writer Nick Thomas) that the film would not do well with non-African audiences, since this rhythm is not one to which Westerners are accustomed. That may well be true. But veterans of the Cascade Festival will appreciate the film for this very quality, for its stark, simple beauty, and for its universal story of a strong woman working to keep her values, her dignity, and her family intact. In the immensity of the desert, to find a spring with fresh, delicious water is no small thing.
By the end of Faraw! we have come to a deep appreciation of Zamiatou (and the actress, Aminata Ousmane). Yes, she is "the eternal mother" who can inspire us all, but she is also a woman, a woman with a complex inner life (we are reminded of that in the strange final dream sequence), strong passions beneath her apparently stoic exterior, deep memories, buried hopes and dreams. She is like the desert, and like this film--deceptively bare and apparently simple, but full of its own deep vitality.
Notes by Michael Dembrow
Return to Ninth Festival Program.