By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act December 4, 2012 at 10:33AM
Continuing on with the series... but first, a recap...
As was announced about 2 months ago by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, a record-setting 71 different countries submitted films for consideration to be nominees for next year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
A number of those countries are from continental Africa; in fact, one of them is submitting a film for the very first time (Kenya).
I'll get to that country in another post, as I continue a new series that looks at Africa's contributions (past to present) to that specific Oscar category, since it was first introduced in 1956 (the 29th Academy Awards which were handed out in 1957), when a competitive Academy Award of Merit, known as the Best Foreign Language Film Award, was created for non-English speaking films, and has been given annually since then.
Prior to 1956, the Academy presented Special/Honorary Awards to the best foreign language films released in the United States; however, they weren't handed out regularly, and it wasn't competitive, unlike other categories. Although in the very early years of the ceremony, probably until after WWII, there was really no separate recognition for foreign language films.
And the film that would win the first official Best Foreign Language Oscar was Federico Fellini's La Strada, beginning a trend that would go on to see European films dominate in terms of wins in that category, followed by Asian films, with African films, and films from Latin America, rounding out the list.
I won't tell you exactly how many African films have won the Best Foreign Language category, but, as I'm sure you can guess, the number is low. However, I'm not just interesting in those films that won; I'm considering all the films that each country has submitted, since the award was first handed out some 55 years ago.
Continuing with the list of countries in alphabetical order, based on my research, I had to skip over a few countries, like Central African Republic, to get to today's country, which is Chad. Why did I skip? Well, simple. The countries between Cameroon and Chad have never submitted a film for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration.
Chad, on the other hand, has submitted just one film for consideration in the entire history of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film: In 2002, Abouna by a filmmaker whose name should be immediately familiar, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, one of the small handful of African filmmakers with international recognition, whose films have screened almost all over the world - his most recent, Un Homme Qui Crie (A Screaming Man) hopefully rings the bell.
I thought we'd reviewed Abouna in the past, so I did some digging through the S&A archives to find MsWOO's 2009 write-up, in which she called it one of her absolute favorite works of African cinema. And so instead of writing up an entirely new piece on the film, after re-reading her enthusisatic, and well-penned write-up on the film, I'm reposting what she said about it, because I simply couldn't have said it all better myself:
One of my favourite African films is Abouna (Our Father), by Mahamat Saleh Haroun, which I first saw about three years ago on TV. It came on about an hour before I was due to go out to meet up with a friend... I was about 40 minutes late - having started, I just had to watch the film till the end.
Set in the director's home country of Chad, the film has won several awards, including one for its cinematography.
From a Western perspective, it's not often that we get to see images of African children that aren't starving, in some form of bondage, or forced into fighting wars; it would be easy to forget, therefore, that African children, just like other children all over the world, have hopes and dreams that aren't always concerned with the basic needs of life - food, water, shelter, clothing...
Abouna is a modern African story in which two brothers, 15 year old Tahir and 8 year old Amine (played excellently by Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa and Hamza Moctar Aguid, respectively), wake up to find that their father has left them and their mother. Certain that their father will soon come back, they endure having to hear their mother (Zara Haroun) label him irresponsible, and their football playing friends discount him as unreliable (he is their coach, and him not turning up this time around doesn't sit well with the team).
Their efforts to find their father lead them to find out that their mother and team mates might have had a point but they're determined to find him, even if it means seeking him out in film (quite literally).
The boys' search lands them in trouble with the law and, at the end of her tether, their mother decides to send the two town dwelling, upper working-class boys, to a rural koranic school where discipline is harsh and unremitting, and only serves to bolster their resolve to escape and find their father.
Abouna is a film that is without affectation or conceit and, though of a different time and place, it put me in mind, at times, of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep.
The performances, especially from the two leads, are natural and subtley-nuanced and you're drawn in, not by the high drama, fast-paced action and gripping tension, but by the rapport between the brothers - their jokes, banter, reliance on each other for emotional and mental strength and support...
There are some very sweet, sad, and touching moments, but it's all managed without any cloyingly sweet cuteness or overt tugging of heart-strings.
While dreams and hopes feature prominently in the film, a quality, it would seem, engendered in the boys by their now absent father, they're used as a vehicle to push things along, to spur the protagonists into action, rather than to provide any sentimental, feel-good escapism. Familial love, devotion and disruption; childhood dreams, pragmatism and folly; emotional and mental despair, first love... It's all here, but without a soundtrack that cues your tears and with visuals that are beautiful without being overtly distracting.
I give Abouna two thumbs up! As the film was made in 2002, it's unlikely to be playing in any festivals anywhere near you, so you may need to see if you can find it on DVD or watch out for any retrospectives in your local art-house cinema or TV/cable channel.
The film is on DVD, in several key regions, so wherever you are in the world, you just might be able to find it. US audiences should know that it's available for sale on Amazon. However, it's not for rental on Netflix unfortunately.
And while the film was submitted for nominated consideration, it wasn't shortlisted that year, and didn't receive a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It's the only time Chad has ever submitted a film for Oscar consideration.
Strangely enough, Haroun's last work, A Screaming Man, wasn't submitted for consideration last year, despite the wealth of praise and awards it received on the internation cinema circuit. There might be a story there that I'm just not aware of. But research revealed nothing. However, I'll keep digging.
Here's a trailer for Abouna in the meantime: