Waalo Fendo Review

AKA: Waalo Fendo: Where the Earth Freezes, Waalo Fendo: La Ou la Terre Gele, Waalo Fendo: Dove la Terra Gela
Genre: Drama/Docufiction
Year Released: 1997
Distributor: ArtMattan
Origin: Senegal/Switzerland/Algeria
Running Time: 65 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Waiting for Happiness, The Visitor, Human Capital, Brother from Another Planet, Illegal, Otomo, Before Your Eyes, Haramuya, Mandabi, Borrom Sarret
Notes:
-Waalo Fendo was a bonus feature in the Otomo DVD, but it is an unrelated film.
Fun Facts:
-Waalo Fendo is the full-length narrative directorial debut of Malian-Algerian (currently based in Switzerland) filmmaker Mohammed Soudani. Some of his other films he’s been in charge of are Oro Verde, Lionel, and Roulette.

-The music was scored by Italian composer Giovanni Venosta. He also lent his musical skills for films such as Days and Clouds, Pesi Ieggeri, and The Peaceful Air of the West.

-Waalo Fende was tied with The Silence of Men as the inaugural Best Film winners at the Swiss Film Awards.

-Disney Fan Bonus: A poster of The Hunchback of Notre Dame can be seen right by a McDonald’s in Milan.

-The main location of this film is none other than Milan, Italy. It’s actually second only to Rome when it comes to population (over 1,399,000 strong), but the metro area surpasses that of the nation’s capital’s metro area and it’s the third largest in that regard in the entire EU. Milan has Sister City status with Chicago, IL, Birmingham, England, and even Dakar, Senegal which adds fridge brilliance since the main characters travel to Senegal’s capital to make it to that Italian city.

ArtMattan has a fascinating habit of having entire full length films as extras for certain DVDs. This was intriguing in itself not just because of their 2 DVD sets which I’ve covered in previous reviews, but having a full-length bonus feature of unrelated films is pretty nice. Film Movement has been famous with their DVDs having a short film as an extra, but I’ve never seen them go this far when it comes to promoting independent features. After watching Otomo, I found out about this particular movie in the special features section. While it was completely unrelated to that German film, both movies have a common unifying theme of Africans immigrating to Europe. Unlike a Cameroonian going to Germany in Otomo, this film involves some Senegalese people going to Italy to attempt to make a good living.

How does this film handle such a touchy subject when it comes to migrant workers in Europe much less the whole world?

Waalo Fendo is about the lives of Senegalese migrants who try to survive in Milan. The story is mainly from Demba’s perspective who’s the last of the group to go to that European country. The story begins in media res as Demba’s brother Yaro gets shot to death while in his car at a gas station and the film goes all the way back to where his brother, Sam, and mutual friend Theo start out as immigrants to the second biggest city in Italy. As Demba is in the rural villages of Senegal, he pines to go to Europe not just because of the (alleged) greener pastures up there, but because the village is suffering due to drought, livestock dying, and an incoming famine. Demba is able to get money from a donor by the name of Mr. Bilal in addition to the money saved from his family to get him from the village to the capital city of Dakar, and then all the way to Italy. Him, his brother, and friends who are already in that country face a rude awakening as they scrape by as street vendors and tomato farmers. Barely anyone is buying their wares with the former job and they’re being severely underpaid with the latter job. How will these Senegalese migrants fare in Milan with low-paying menial work, trying to lay low, and try to support their families from abroad?

I could see why this was paired up with Otomo in that DVD release, but Waalo Fendo is certainly it’s own movie. The film work was very gritty and had lots of neorealism touches. It reminded me of a 90s take on Italian realism, but with a major twist. The film is guided by narration (mainly from Demba) and uses montages that connect to what’s being said. The docufiction tag felt accurate not just because it felt like a real-life story, but even the filming style lead to it. The narration scenes where one sees their faces felt like interviews and to drive the point home, they look right at the camera as they’re talking. Not only that, but some of the dialogue scenes felt like they were leaning on the fourth wall like how Yaro is excited to hear that Demba made it to Italy and he’s looking at the camera as if the person on the other side was his friend and not the viewer. There’s even a back and forth exchange, so the camera work makes it as if you’re viewing the friend’s perspective. That was very clever and creative. The soundtrack was fine and used a lot of traditional Senegalese instrumentation like an Ousmane Sembene movie. There were a couple of musical moments where the griot narrates/sings during the village scenes. The depiction of immigration and life in Europe was handled interestingly while not being preachy. Demba talks about the stories of immigrants being deported if something bad happens and is told to lie low. The aspect of the immigrants doing all the work at the tomato farms was something that was quite universal as they’re underpaid and being mistreated. It was also noticeable that non a single white tomato picker was in sight. This reminded me of America with how these farms would employ immigrant workers (mainly in the Latinx community) and having questionable working conditions. Not only that, but just a few years ago, the state of Georgia had a low turnout of harvesting crops when there weren’t enough migrant workers and none of the locals wanted to do their jobs, so the various produce was rotting in the fields. Not to spoil the ending, but there’s a monologue where one of the characters begrudgingly continues to work in Italy even though some of his peers went back to Africa given the situations over there. It was a realization that Italy much less Europe wasn’t everything he hoped it would be, but it was done in a non-preachy way. While I’ve covered some movies with similar messages as a core point or in a subplot such as Black Girl or Mano, but this was handled in a fresh, yet believable way.

Waalo Fendo does get frozen at times despite having scenes in Sub-Saharan Africa and in the Mediterranean Southern Italian sun. This was made in 1997 and it really shows with the fashion, hair styles, and technology. The characters constantly write letters to their families back home and I’m sure that would be the last decade people would do so that frequently especially when you consider how email wasn’t that widespread yet, cell phones were rare as well as very expensive, and places such as Facebook weren’t invented yet. Some of the Senegalese men rock some hip-hop wear in the Milan scenes and one of them even wears a 90s Chicago Bulls cap (in their defense, it was a VERY good decade to be a Bulls fan). I’m sure this has become a bit of a meme if anyone has read any of my reviews where I say that something suffers from unintentional period piece syndrome, but guess what piece of old technology I saw multiple times…PAYPHONES! That just screams the 90s much less the late 20th century so much. Seriously, I could see any Gen-Z viewer or younger watching this and wonder why someone would call on a phone in a box when one can walk around with a cell phone anytime or anywhere. Besides the timestamped material, some of the production was muddy with lighting issues or lack of color correction in places. While there is a decent amount of attention given to Demba and Yaro, it was hard to keep a track of the other migrants like Sam or Theo. I felt like there wasn’t too much development with most of the characters besides Demba. While I get that the brothers are originally from the boonies of Senegal, the imagery shown in those scenes does lend itself to the “Africa is nothing but poor people” portfolio. The camera tint was very warm to accentuate the oppressive heat, there’s desert land, and multiple scenes where those stupid UNICEF flies pop up on people (Stop making me reuse that Trevor Noah reference, movie!). I’ve reviewed other Senegalese movies from different decades and have seen modern pictures of the country (not just Dakar), and I know that nation isn’t all like that. One could argue that the glitz and glam of Milan could be seen as a facade for that city which makes sense, but having that much of a contrast shown didn’t sit well with me even though I could understand why that a filming choice like that would be there.

This film was a decent effort when it comes to the topic of immigrant characters. The documentary-esque filming style was gritty while also being creative with the narrative. Having all of that while still feeling natural is no small feat. Demba’s narrations were fascinating and the story was very believable. Unfortunately, there wasn’t too much character development and several parts of the movie were quite outdated in hindsight. Waalo Fendo wasn’t a masterpiece in cinema, but I can tell the filmmakers and actors actually tried in this movie.

Adjustable Point System:
Add 1-2 points if you like neorealism or docufiction movies.
Add 1 point if you like believable stories.
Subtract 1-2 points if you want superb video production.
Subtract 2-3 points if you want more dynamic characters in your movies.

Pros:
-Creative docufiction, fourth wall-leaning and in media res filming
-Keen social commentary on immigrating to richer countries
-Nice traditional soundtrack

Cons:
-Glaringly obvious unintentional period piece syndrome
-Lack of notable character development for most characters
-Some film production flaws such as lighting or looking too cheap at times

Final Score: 6/10 points

Content Warning: Waalo Fendo should be okay for teens and up. There are characters who get killed with Yaro’s murder showing up very early in the film as he’s gunned down by an unknown assailant before the flashbacks happen. Other characters die, but they do so off-screen and Demba explains how and why that happened. There’s drug usage as one of the migrants is seen trapping in his apartment with cocaine, so it’s not just drinking or smoking cigarettes on screen. There are low-key elements of systemic racism such as the migrant workers being mistreated or how they struggle getting employed to better jobs. Only one case of profanity was used and even then it was mild.

-Curtis Monroe

All videos and photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Waalo Fendo is property of ArtMattan. The poster is from IMDb and is property of ArtMattan.

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