Criterion Prediction #77: Yaaba, by Alexander Miller

22 Feb

Title: Yaaba

Year: 1989

Director: Idrissa Ouedraogo

Cast: Fatimata Sanga, Noufou Ouedraogo, Roukietou Barry, Adama Ouedraogo, Amadou Toure

Synopsis: Bila, a young boy who lives in a small African village, befriends an older woman named Sana. Their unlikely friendship upsets Bila’s family and fellow villagers who have ostracized the woman, believing her to be a witch. When Bila’s cousin Nopoko stricken tetanus, the villagers rely on faith and witch doctors while Bila rallies to enlist Sana, aware of her capabilities in making medicine. “Yaaba” translates to Grandmother, an affectionate nickname Bila has given to Sana.

Critique: African cinema is fascinating and in some ways difficult to get a grasp of, which is what makes it all the more intriguing. There’s an expected and engrossing tenor of (understandably) politically-motivated films from the likes of Ousmene Sembene, and more recently Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2014 film Timbuktu. Ouedraogo’s direction conveys a substantially dramatic narrative advantaged with naturalism and delicate pacing. Yaaba is self-assuredly succinct and skillfully assembled.

The free-flowing story would seem like aesthetic slumming or pandering had there been any confectionary additives, or outside forces meddling to make the proceedings more universal. It’s as if the genesis of the film were a way to enlighten audiences to the daily activities of African villagers. The purity in the story is that it’s not spoon feeding anyone’s sensibilities, instead of treating the first world to the goings-on of indigenous culture as pure and angelic – Ouedraogo’s earthy eye for detail is even handed, we see life as it is, warts and all.

While the young protagonists Bila and Nopoko are innocent children, they’re surrounded by the stubborn values and prejudices of their parents and neighboring adults. There’s gossip, infidelity, a town drunk who is (of course) the wisest of the lot, a nagging matriarch, and a peeping tom. This concentrated but diverse bag of people barely get along, but they do agree on shunning Yaaba, who’s regularly blamed for any misfortune, whether it’s an act of nature or otherwise.

A sagebrush film of thoughtful simplicity with an infectiously skittering soundtrack, Yaaba isn’t as thought-provoking as it is an unassumingly witty treatment with light-handed moral critiques and a sense for the inherent irony of human foibles.

Why it Belongs in the Collection: There are region 2 DVDs of Yaaba floating about, which seems like the only way to go about finding Ouedraogo’s work. Criterion has recently started cracking into the world of African cinema with Ousmene Sembene’s Black Girl and Touki bouki. With the announcement of a second volume of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, the landscape of Criterion is growing wider and wider.

While Black Girl has the succinct political veracity I love to see in a film condemning French colonialism, it’s conscientious tone and placement puts us in French territory. The remaining African films in The Criterion Collection leaves Touki bouki, an energetic movie about two young men hoping to leave Senegal to find better lives in France. There’s much to be said about the years of French occupation in Africa, but it might better serve our understanding of African cinema by looking at Africa, not France. Distribution of Yaaba shouldn’t be difficult for Criterion to acquire. There’s nothing to indicate that this movie is destined for a spine number, but it would be a smart inclusion.

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