AKA: Heremakono, En Attendant le Bonhuer
Year Released: 2002
Distributor: New Yorker Films
Running Time: 91 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Mandabi, Wilby Wonderful, El Bola, Timbuktu, Taxi, Close-Up
-Waiting for Happiness takes place in Nouadhibou, Maritania. It’s the 2nd largest city in that county with over 118,000 people living in that coastal hub. It’s home to the terminus to that nation’s only train line and Nouadhibou is supposedly a city where people trade meteorites of all things. Sounds like every sci-fi fan’s dream!
-Three languages are spoken in this movie: Hassaniya Arabic (a dialect spoken in Northwest Africa), French, and Mandarin.
-Waiting for Happiness is the 2nd narrative film (7th overall) by Malian-Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako. Some of his other works include Bamako, Timbuktu, and Life on Earth.
-The soundtrack is handled by Malian singer/multi-instrumentalist Oumou Sangare. She has collaborated with musicians such as Seal, Herbie Hancock, Tony Allen, Ludovic Bruni, and Pink.
-Hilarious in Hindsight: Nana is actually played by someone who has the same name. Her actress is Nana Diakite.
I finally did it! I achieved one of my reviewing goals for 2020 and that was to cover films from five different African nations that have never been featured on Iridium Eye before. Let’s recap what I reviewed this year so far which made the cut. There was the Gabonese short film Operation Nguende, Zimbabwe’s highest-grossing film Neria, the metal documentary March of the Gods which has Botswanan co-production even if it was directed by an Italian, and the Ugandan action/parody film Who Killed Captain Alex?. One could also count Camp de Thiaroye since that had Algerian and Tunisian co-productions even though I’ve reviewed works from the Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene before. What I legitimately didn’t expect was for the final film in this little goal to be from Mauritania of all places. I knew nothing about their film scene and I only know a few things about that country. I knew Arabic is one of the official languages, it’s a Muslim-majority nation, the capital is Nouakchott, it’s in Africa, and the flag has green, red, and gold in the design, but that was as far as my knowledge went. I saw that some of Abderrahmane Sissako’s work was on Netflix’s DVD service, so I thought it would be a great form way to expand my horizons by taking on a movie from a country I’m not that familiar with.
Alright, Mr. Sissako. Show me what you got.
Waiting for Happiness recounts some days in the life of multiple people in the desert city of Nouadhibou. There’s Abdallah who just returned home from France after studying in that country. He tends to be alone, wearing only Western clothes as opposed to traditional garb, and he loses his fluency in Hassaniya Arabic (the most spoken language in Mauritania, by the way) although he’s quite fluent in French. There’s an elderly electrician named Maata and his child apprentice Khatra (pronounced just like how Quatre from Gundam Wing says his name just so you know) who are doing their best to work in that trade in the community despite not everyone always has the money for that kind of work. There’s Makan who’s from Sub-Saharan Africa and wants to take off for Europe. There are multiple other townsfolk of different ethnic groups living life in Mauritania.
Some of you who’ve read multiple reviews of mine know that I’m a sucker for neorealism as well as seeing more understated stories. The naturalistic camera work was just gorgeous. Sure, this film may not have had a high budget, but the shot composition was more than worth it. Everything felt so real like I was transported to this Saharan city and seeing the townsfolk do their own things. The long stretches of sandy roads en route to Nouadhibou, the local music, or some of the parties felt so close to me despite being thousands of miles away. The camera work was crisp, but never felt glossy or dolled up at all. There were no special effects. The closest thing was the kaleidoscope scene where Khatra and the singing girl look at it, but even then I can tell this was just put over the camera lens and wasn’t crafted in post-production. The music was certainly great with the acoustic instruments and some of the Hassaniya singing going on. Weirdly enough, one of the scenes with Makan and his friends in a photo booth had a song playing in the background that I swore was in Lingala of all languages (maybe they were Congolese this whole time?), but it still sounded great. I enjoyed Waiting For Happiness having a sense of peace around it even with some of the issues going on. It brought a sense of normalcy and a bit of wonder even in some of the most mundane scenes. The usage of subtlety was certainly intriguing with how so many of the characters are portrayed. The best usage was that of the Abdallah character. He wears European clothes that match the window curtains of his home, doesn’t like the local music, and speaks better French than Hassaniya despite being originally from Mauritania, to begin with. That was a nice social commentary about people being Westernized to the point of almost abandoning their heritage in a non-preachy way. I was also surprised y how multi-ethnic that country was. The cast consists of characters who are Black, Arab, those who look mixed between those aforementioned ethnic groups, and there’s one Chinese immigrant character. Ethnicity never becomes an issue in the plot and seeing how diverse Mauritania is after looking at the demographics, Waiting for Happiness beats the Deggans Test with flying colors (no pun intended) which is an awesome thing even though this may have been unintentional on Sissako’s part, but still worth celebrating.
Waiting for Happiness did try my patience and appreciation of this film at times. Besides, Abdallah, Maata, Makan, Khatra, or Nana, I had a hard time keeping track of so many of the characters. There were some that showed up multiple times like that older woman musician and her young female student. They certainly sounded great when they played music, but I didn’t know who they were and the subplot in the third act with the girl meeting Khatra felt forced and dropped just as quickly for example. There were other plot points that were introduced and then dropped like how one woman talked about going to Europe before coming back, but it’s never brought up again later on. I can’t believe I’m going to use a Nostalgia Critic reference in this review, but that and other subplots felt like low-key neorealist cases of big-lipped alligator moments (that’s a reference to All Dogs Go to Heaven for those who aren’t familiar with his videos). This film meanders from character to character with little rhyme or reason. I get that Sissako tried to do more of a “day in the life” approach with the characters which I understand, but this could’ve been handled much better. If Waiting for Happiness were done as an episodic film project like The Decalogue or like the anime series Human Crossing, I think the storytelling and character development could’ve shined even brighter for me. Most of the characters don’t even have connections with others anyway, so that format would’ve been stronger. While I’m certainly a fan of subtlety over overt messages, I have my limits as things were too obscure. It’s good to have people interpret one’s work, but I felt that there wasn’t a point in so many things. I’m not asking for a grand artistic statement about life or some serious issue, but I thought things were too low-key in its messaging or being too understated. This is coming from a guy who gave 10/10s to Haibane Renmei, Taxi, and Wrinkles, so you know that’s saying something from me. Man alive, I didn’t even like Seraphim Call, but at least I saw the point in the episodic structure and the final episode of that anime tied up everything in a way that made sense in that story. Waiting for Happiness could work as a slice-of-life film and I understand why some critics really like this movie, but I wished there was more consistency with the plots and characters.
This was a watchable entry into Mauritania’s cinema scene. The cinematography was gorgeous in its neorealism approach and it was fascinating seeing life in Saharan Africa that doesn’t rely on negative preconceptions while at the same time showing the little imperfections there. The naturalistic production was wonderful and enjoyed some of the subtlety shown with the characters. However, that subtlety was a double-edged sword as it backfired into obscurity from time to time. I also thought parts of the movie got too mundane for me. Waiting for Happiness works for fans of slice-of-life films who want something different, but I think this film did waste some of its potential.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1-2 points if you like realistic or slice-of-life movies that aren’t shallow or preachy.
Add 1-2 points if you’re a fan of Abderrahmane Sissako’s movies.
Subtract 1-4 points if you want movies with deeper meanings.
-Beautiful neorealist visual production
-Obliterates the Deggans Test guidelines in a believable manner
-Gets far too subtle for its own good
-Subplots and character arcs are dropped for no reason
-Hard to keep track of the characters
Final Score: 6/10 points
Content Warning: Waiting for Happiness might get a medium to hard PG if this got an official rating. The only offensive things were people occasionally smoking and maybe some implied sex which is offscreen anyway (one scene involves a cop asking for a woman to “get to know him” as they walk into a tent). There are a couple of death scenes, but the bodies are there after the fact as one presumably dies of old age and another is a drowned body. Some themes will go over young viewers’ heads such as Westernization, immigrant caravans (mainly crossing the sea to Europe which is still a thing), and cultural denial with Abdallah’s character. There aren’t many objectionable things since there’s no violence, no profanity, blood, or anything erotic going on.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Waiting for Happiness is property of New Yorker Films. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of New Yorker Films.