For Criterion Consideration: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Abouna

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With countries like Romania, Russia and even the likes of Iran becoming some of the most fertile landscapes in all of cinema, one entire continent has been rarely discussed as just the cinematic powerhouse that it truly is.

When discussing films from the continent of Africa, much of the film world is unsure of a good entry point. Until recently (really starting with the rise of boutique DVD labels and arthouse imprints like Sony Pictures Classics), much of the cinematic output from Africa was nearly impossible to come across, outside of extremely rare screenings in the smallest of art house cinemas in Los Angeles and New York. However, as more and more pieces of African cinema arrive on Netflix, Hulu, Fandor, and most importantly palpable, tactile, physical media, it’s about time Criterion firmly get involved by bringing us one of the best pieces of film from Africa’s modern cinematic age.

Entitled Abouna, the picture comes from arguably Africa’s current leading filmmaker, Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, and is possibly one of the best films from the last 13 years of African cinema.

Rather straightforward in its setup, the film follows two brothers, Tamir and Amine, who discover that their father has suddenly abandoned them and their mother. With this discovery, they slowly start to act out; doing things like stealing a reel of film that they believe contains shots of their father. When their mother becomes fed up with their behavior, they are sent to a Koranic school where they feel out of place, and they plan to escape. A startlingly complex and touching meditation on family and one’s search for love, Abouna is an unsung masterpiece from one of today’s most exciting foreign directors.

Relatively unknown to American audiences, Saleh Haroun proves that, with this picture, he’s a force to truly reckon with. The winner of the FIPRESCI Prize (an award won by films from the likes of Malick and Almodovar), Abouna is an absolutely stunning bit of cinema. Deeply rooted in neo-realism, the film thrives here with an aesthetic not far from its Middle Eastern brethren. Feeling very much like the lyrically naturalistic films of early Kiarostami (there’s even a bit of surrealism tossed in, involving the aforementioned reel of film being stolen), the film looks naturally lit, full of stunning photography from cinematographer Abraham Haile Biru. Plaintive and stoic, Abouna is a thoughtfully quiet film that says as much with glances as it does with its screenplay (also from Saleh Haroun).

However, much like its counterparts, the simplicity is a front in many ways, as this is a dramatic, complex, and truly ambitious piece of work. With the previously touched upon moments of surrealism, Saleh Haroun’s picture is a deeply affective meditation on everything from the universal ideas of love and family, to the very real harshness of what it is like growing up in modern Africa. While the film itself is ostensibly a gorgeous motion picture, it finds a second half that is as brooding a look at the loss of innocence as we’ve seen in quite some time. Culminating in a final act that place like more of a punch to all of one’s emotions than anything else, the film is an ambitious attempt at telling a human tale in a brazenly naturalistic way.

And thankfully, the performances help bring that naturalism to the forefront. While we see, from the opening frames of the father’s moment of abandonment, that this is going to be a heartfelt, down to Earth tale, it is in the performances that the film becomes truly resonant.  Starring Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa and Hamza Moctar Aguid, the film’s greatest attribute may very well be its lead cast. The two nonprofessional actors bring a rather shocking level of life and truth to their roles as two brothers looking for a true place in the world. Able to get above and beyond the rather standard coming of age setup, the performances are as thrilling an aspect of the film as Saleh Haroun’s direction or the use of the ever vibrant Chad landscapes. Best described as beautifully authentic and authentically beautiful, Abouna captures not only the gorgeous, aforementioned Chad visuals, but with enough thematic chutzpah, a social and political landscape with a moving and personal eye rarely seen in today’s film landscape.

Immensely intimate and moving, Abouna is a breathtaking piece of work. Blending naturalism with the occasional bit of surrealism, absolutely bleak drama with spurts of comedy and injected with a consistent sense of true heart, director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun proves to be one of the more interesting foreign directors working today. Touching on similar themes one would find in other pieces from his canon (particularly when it comes to the politics of his native Chad in films like Bye Bye Africa or the great A Screaming Man), Saleh Haroun paints a powerfully personal tale of abandonment, responsibility and innocence that would fit alongside any great Western coming of age narrative. Universal in its reach yet entirely singular in its sense of intimacy, Abouna is truly one of the great films that has yet to find an audience, even now 11 years after its debut.

But what about a Criterion Collection release? With Criterion still relatively bare when it comes to African cinema, this would be a perfect introduction into that world, for not only Criterion, but cinephiles as well. Universal in its aesthetic, themes and narrative, the film could be perfect fodder for a bare bones release, or with a retrospective (the film is over a decade old) and a commentary, this could be one hell of a solid release. Toss in a new restoration, this is one release that will hopefully, some day, come true. If not, someone needs to give this the new restoration that it so rightly deserves.

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