Waiting for Happiness ★★★½

Viewed through windows and veils
A world of shoes and sitars.
A Little boy
Carries the light no more.

Mike's Cannes review had him questioning whether his always baffling response to African Cinema made him a racist. It doesn't of course, but appreciating a film like this does require a more open nuance to events and details not coalescing that a Western Aristotelian perspective of narrative, even one who has taken in the history of art-house cinema, will still find somewhat challenging.

Then again, Waiting for Happiness is one of the most Westernized films in terms of its aesthetic approach. Sissako himself is certainly a very different type of African director: his parents are from Mali and Mauritania, and he emigrated to Russia at a young age. He studied at VGIK and then came to France where he began making films. To further complicate, he doesn't cite forerunners like Cisse and Sembene, but Antonioni, Fassbinder, Fellini, and Tarkovsky. Like many of the now great African directors, he comes from a disapora as opposed to from a particular identity (and certainly one of the central textures of this film is about a character attempting to connect with some sort of roots he doesn't understand).

So what's notable in this film, as opposed to the political works of the 60s/70s or even the village films made in Burkina Faso of the 1980s/90s is that it's visual approach to details is completely in the vein of "Festival aesthetic" — long takes, little dialogue, and striking compositions do the heavy work for Sissako. And the narrative itself somewhat makes us aware of the distance: Abdallah often views the world through his small window, and many shots are through a veil, giving us a chance that we cannot know everything. Sissako seems to be more giving us a portrait of a community that seems to exist in stasis (a great double feature with Jia's The World), full of both exiles and those wishing to exile themselves. Richard Pena called it a film about a time and place without narrative, which might be the best approach to it.

However, the question of "adding up" is probably the one that frustrated Mike the most. Waiting for Happiness certainly avoids coalescing its narrative, even seeming to contradict itself at places—the young boy who seems so determined to bring a lightbulb to his home breaks another one the second a miracle has started it—which Pena argued shouldn't be seen as some anti-technology manifesto. There's plenty in this film that goes unexplained, and while its aesthetic might be more Western than a film like Keita or especially The Wind, its narrative is just as rigorous if not so.

And better for Sissako to make a film perhaps that shouldn't fit our views of "what cinema is," especially when the filmmaker is great at crafting some beautiful shots, especially that almost Lynchian image of a single lightbulb traveling through the desert. I'll take it.