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Archive for June, 2012

Although causality is central to the vast majority of narrative films, there are other ways of telling a story. In Abderrahmane Sissako’s Heremakono (2002), the plot—if it can be called that—consists of a series of self-contained vignettes which are unified by the setting and a loose time scheme. (With the exception of a single flashback, the action is confined to a period of three weeks in a coastal village in Mauritania.) As a result of its relaxed narrative structure, and the often elliptical narration, the movie keeps the viewer focussed on what’s happening in the present rather than where the story is headed or where it’s been.

I don’t mean to imply, however, that the film is shapeless or undisciplined. The story can be broken down into two large-scale movements, each taking place over three days and two nights with an ellipsis of two weeks in between. (The first part is roughly forty minutes long, while the second runs about fifty minutes.) In addition to this palindromic structure, the movie’s numerous rhyme effects create a sense of symmetry between the two parts. To list only a few examples: At the beginning of the film, a westernized teenager, Abdallah, travels across the border from Mali to visit his mother in Nouadhibou, and in the end, Makan, a Malian living in Mauritania, takes the same taxi in the opposite direction. In one scene, Khatra (an orphan working as an apprentice to an ancient electrician) tries to teach Abdallah—who no longer speaks Hassaniya—some basic vocabulary, but when his mother introduces him to some local girls, he confuses the word for “nose” with the word for “mouth.” Early on, a hardware salesman promises to give Khatra his work clothes when the boy is old enough to wear them, and late in the movie, Khatra trades in his flowing traditional garments for a snug jumpsuit. Each scene has its place within the overall design, yet because causal relationships are so loose, on a moment-to-moment basis, the film has an uncommon immediacy.

Consider the sequence in which Abdallah goes to the hospital for a checkup. In a normal movie, this scene would have far-reaching consequences (the doctor could find something seriously wrong with him, or he might meet a cute girl in the waiting room), but here what’s important is how the drab colours and slow rhythms of the mise en scène, along with the subdued sound mix (the sequence contains no music and little dialogue), work together to create a mood. And since the scene is self-contained in terms of plot, the film can do without the exposition that would be obligatory in a more classical film. We’re never told why Abdallah has to go to the hospital, or for that matter, why he was in Mali or how long he was there. Similarly, not only are we not told why Makan’s friend Mickaël decides to emigrate to Europe, but when his carcass drifts ashore two weeks after his departure, we never find out what happened to him. The characters seem only to exist in the present moment.

Two important exceptions are the electrician, Maata, who in one scene tells Khatra a story about when he was a fisherman, and Nana, who tells Abdallah about a trip she made to Europe to see her ex-lover, Vincent, which is shown in flashback. On the soundtrack, we hear Nana’s voice as she tells her story, but her words don’t quite sync up with the images. Over a shot of Nana smoking silently on a hotel bed, we hear her say, “I told him our little girl was struck by a high fever. She didn’t make it through.” A few seconds later, as a white hand reaches into the frame to take a drag of her cigarette, Nana continues, “He said, ‘Why did you come?'” Then after another pause, “He took me to a hotel. He paid for a week.” Rather than the images illustrating Nana’s story, the film shows Vincent getting dressed after taking her to a cheap hotel to have sex—an event that’s not directly alluded to in the voice-over and which takes place after Nana informs him of the death of their daughter—in order to emphasize his callousness. (The movie purposefully doesn’t show us his face.) Unlike the rest of the film, which is single-mindedly focussed on the present moment, here the voice-over situates the images in terms of what led up to this point.

Heremakono is the kind of movie where people sometimes complain that “nothing happens.” (In a review for the website Combustible Celluloid, Jeffrey M. Anderson dismissed the film as “a moving picture that does not move.”) And while it’s easy to see why some one would think that, it’s not precisely accurate. The movie is full of events, although they don’t follow one another in an inexorable sequence of causes and effects. It’s therefore impossible to distinguish between major and minor events (Abdallah’s routine checkup is made to seem just as important as the discovery of Mickaël’s corpse), or say if the plot is moving slowly or quickly. While it’s obviously not an action movie, the film never struck me as being unduly protracted either. As much as it departs from the norms of classical narrative filmmaking, the movie never feels self-conscious or arbitrary. Each shot is unaffected, essential, and right.

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