The neglectful father trope is a staple of family-centric dramas, but Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Abouna (2002) offers a refreshing take on this narrative, in that the father in question features only once at the film’s beginning. We see him briefly look across the desert, but the scene soon cuts, revealing that he has abandoned not only his young sons, but us as viewers also. This allows the neglect itself to take centre stage, haunting the rest of the film and rendering boyhood in Abouna an unstable, precarious state. Abouna tackles a traumatising event in the lives of its protagonists, fifteen-year-old Tahir (Ahidjo Mahamet Moussa) and eight-year-old Amine (Hamza Moctar Aguid) who wake up one morning to find that their father has disappeared. A modern classic of African cinema, Abouna unravels into a series of subtle, touching events as the brothers wander the Chadian landscape — both in search of their father, and of their own developing senses of selfhood. But Abouna ends on a note of hope, suggesting the possibility for love and healing to fill the absence left by the enigmatic father.
Tahir and Amine’s initial search for their father in the city of N’Djamena encapsulates the tenderness and humour that Abouna balances throughout. Haroun shifts between highlighting the boys’ shared loneliness after their father’s disappearance, and their brotherly banter. Peter Bradshaw writes of Haroun’s ‘understated’ and ‘gloriously quietist’ directorial style, praising Haroun’s skill for emotive imagery and sparse, realistic dialogue. It doesn’t feel out of place or trivial to include footage of the brothers walking on their hands by the Cameroon border. Instead, moments like this deepen the film’s pathos, as we are reminded that these are children comprehending loss for the rest of time, and cannot yet recognise the severity of their father’s absence.
We are reminded, continually yet subtly, of Tahir and Amine’s shared difficulty grappling with the disappearance. Their mother, when asked for an explanation, only tells her sons that their father was ‘irresponsible’ and shuts down any potential discussion with her children about their emotional wellbeing. One memorable scene involves the brothers going to the cinema, and Amine, finding a resemblance between an actor in the film and his father, calls out ‘Father, it’s me!’. It grows apparent that the brothers will have to look to each other for both emotional support, and a sense of coherent meaning in their dramatically altered lives. One of my favourite shots in the film features Tahir and Amine looking at a painting of Morocco, where their father has supposedly gone. In the shot, the colours of their clothing match those in the painting, affirming the inextricable nature of their father’s absence from their lives that must continue without him.
Abouna is an emotional slow-burn, with an un-rushed plot, and alternate focus on feeling and character observation. Through its chain of uncertain events and gentle tone, in contrast with the intensity of events depicted, Abouna lends itself beautifully to representing the precarity of neglected youth. Scenes of the brothers joking as they wander the empty landscape are juxtaposed with shocking scenes of physical abuse when the brothers are sent to a Koranic school. But given the film’s intimate feel and grounding in realism, this shift in subject isn’t tonally jarring. Rather, it’s a reminder that boyhood in Abouna is not one but many things — it contains threat and fear but also hope for something beyond trauma. Another of my favourite details was Uncle Adoum’s guitar playing and singing, which serves as a hint of light in challenging times. As Dana Stevens writes: ‘Poignant though it is, the movie is the opposite of depressing. There is too much life in it.’
Later in the film, Tahir meets a silent girl, and they begin a romance. This relationship doesn’t read as an aimless add-on, but a believable and earned progression from the suffering previously depicted. Considering Abouna as a study in trauma, this note of hope suggests the possibility for healing, without falling into clichéd idealism. Bessel van der Kolk, in The Body Keeps the Score, his illuminating 2014 book on trauma and therapy, writes: ‘Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.’ Abouna establishes itself from its opening scene as a film that will explore trauma at its most unpredictable and harmful. But by its end, Abouna asserts that genuine connections and healthy relationships can be built after trauma, no matter how intense the initial loss.
– Sylvie Lewis
Featured Image Source: Still via International Film Festival Rotterdam // YouTube