Burkina Faso, 1989
Director: Idrissa Ouedraogo
Production: Arcadia Films (Paris), Les Films de l'Avenir (Ouagadougou), and Thelma Film (Zürich); color, 35mm; running time: 90 minutes; length: 2465 meters (Sweden). Released 1989; filmed in Tougouzagué Village, Burkina Faso.
Producers: Freddy Denaës, Michael David, Pierre-Alain Meier, and Idrissa Ouedraogo; screenplay: Idrissa Ouedraogo; assistant directors: Paul Zoumbara and Ismaël Ouedraogo; photography: Matthias Kälin; editor: Loredana Cristelli; music: Francis Bebey; sound: Jean-Paul Mugel; sound mixer: Dominique Dalmasso; costumes: Marian Sidibé.
Cast: Fatimata Sanga (Yaaba); Noufou Ouedraogo (Bila); Roukietou Barry (Nopoko); Adama Ouedraogo (Kougri); Amadé Touré (Tibo); Sibidou Ouedraogo (Poko); Adamé Sidibé (Razougou); Rasmane Ouedraogo (Noaga); Kinda Moumouni (Finse); Assita Ouedraogo (Koudi); Zenabou Ouedraogo (Pegda); Ousmane Sawadogo (Tibo).
Awards: FIPRESCI Award, Cannes Film Festival, 1989; Gold Award, Tokyo International Film Festival, 1989.
Diawara, Manthia, African Cinema: Politics & Culture, Bloomington, Indiana, 1992.
Barlet, Olivier, Les cinémas d'Afrique noire: Le regard en question, Paris, 1996.
Bernard, Jean-Jacques, review in Première (Paris), August 1989.
Vartanian, Isabelle, review in Studio (Paris), August 1989.
Cardullo, Bert, "Rites of Passage," in The Hudson Review (New York), vol. 44, 1991.
* * *
Yaaba first brought international recognition to Idrissa Ouedraogo, winning the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Special Jury Prize at FESPACO, and the Sakura Gold Prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Yaaba is indeed one of the finest African films. A beautifully filmed morality tale of superstition and intelligence, it touchingly conveys the humanity of its characters and offers a message of tolerance. And it is one of the few African films to have achieved a measure of commercial distribution: in France it sold close to 300,000 seats.
Yaaba distinguishes itself from Western films set in Africa by a whole set of characteristics that make it a distinctly African film: characters, setting, pacing, language, music, and last, but certainly not least, finance. Yaaba takes us to an all-African context where we come to know a wide range of distinctly drawn characters. The film focuses on people and their interactions rather than the setting. The camera allows us to see the beauty in their faces. Yaaba is set in the Sahel, which holds no particular attractions or excitement: the fauna is limited; we never get to see any game; the desert does not threaten rapid death, even if droughts are a recurring calamity; nor are there any dangers lurking in the dark. In stark contrast to Western films, Yaaba follows a slow peasant mode: Ouedraogo takes his time with long scenes, the camera leisurely pans the wide open landscape, following the slow progress of characters dwarfed by the vast expanse, e.g. Sana on her way to the healer. In this respect Yaaba follows a pattern established by Gaston Kaboré in Wend Kuuni, the pioneering attempt to "Africanize" film language by unfolding at a measured pace consonant with the time-honored customs and seasonal rhythms of African village life. All speech in Yaaba is in Moré, the language of the Mossi villagers it portrays. Indeed, if viewers are so inclined, they can learn some Moré as they keep counting with Bila and Nopoko, the two children, playing their games; they can pick up a greeting, and perhaps a couple of insults too; they will certainly remember that yaaba means grandmother. The music in Yaaba is credited to Francis Bebey, a well-known writer, poet, and composer-performer from Cameroon. It is used sparingly. Gentle music accompanies the inteludes when long shots take in the countryside. A faster rhythm conveys drama as in the prelude to the fight of the boys and during the burial of Sana.
Like all African films, Yaaba is a low-budget production: it cost 6 million francs, about one million dollars. Though many African films suffer from shortcomings that can be traced to financial constraints, Idrissa Ouedraogo managed to produce a first rate film. He accomplished this feat by taking on the roles of both writer and director, by shooting the film in Tougouzagué, a village a few miles from his birth place, and by recruiting villagers and his relatives to act—and getting them to act naturally.
Yaaba was a low-budget production, but it nevertheless required financing from overseas sponsors—like most African films produced outside Nigeria and South Africa. In this case financial support came from France, Switzerland, and Germany. Whatever Ouedraogo's preferred audience, this sponsorship presumably determined that the film should aim to reach a Western audience. Anybody familiar with village life in Africa wonders whether presenting Bila and Nopoko as single children is intended to obviate the difficulty for Western viewers of distinguishing them from their siblings; whether it is all that common for Mossi peasant women to have the final say like Bila's mother; whether the drunkard-wife-lover triangle is more the classic French film scenario than Mossi village reality. The close-ups of the lovers may be seen to play to Western expectations, the parsimonious dialogue complemented by body language—gestures, laughter, raspberries—serving to limit tiresome sub-titles.
Ouedraogo has explained that "Yaaba is based on tales of my childhood and on that kind of bedtime story-telling we hear just before falling asleep." And indeed, the film portrays a village out of history. Nothing takes the viewer to pre-colonial times, nor is there any indication of a colonial presence. But if the action is contemporary, the village appears altogether isolated. There is no trace of government, taxes, schools, or clinics. Market relations do not reach beyond a big tree within walking distance where a few people gather with local products, even though coins are common: the diviner demands them, the beggar collects them, the children wager them. And in Burkina Faso, where at any one time about ten percent of the population work outside the country on a temporary basis, there is no indication that any migrant ever returned to this village, no trace of anything he might have sent, or brought, or be using now, no transistor radio, not even a single t-shirt. Yaaba portrays a village such as would be hard to find in Africa today—or anywhere else for that matter.
An ordinary village that time forgot is unlikely to hold much interest for African audiences. Rather, a film of an African village supposedly isolated since times immemorial seeks to reach a Western audience that is interested in such a different culture, but wants to be diverted rather than be reminded of the West's role in slavery and colonialism, of the West's continued dominance in the contemporary world, of the manifold problems plaguing contemporary Africa. Western viewers may appreciate their good luck of not living in village poverty, but in Yaaba that poverty is taken for granted, its causes not at issue. We see the barren landscape of the Sahel, but people have food reserves to share when a family's granary burns down. Sana is destitute because she has been marginalized, not because of a general state of poverty. The only incident of illness is the consequence of a fight among children. Nopoko, Bila, and Sana are beautifully drawn—and their very status, two children and an old destitute woman, invite the patronizing Western gaze: Western viewers are encouraged to strike, once again, a posture of patronizing benevolence vis-à-vis Africans.
The parallels between Yaaba and Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray's classic portrayal of village life in India, are striking. Both films share a sense of serenity as they linger at length on natural scenery. And both avoid the trap of romanticizing village life. Instead they contrast the quarrels of adults with the complicity between a marginalized old woman and two children. In each film the link between old and young is broken when a child touches the seated woman and discovers that she is dead. Unlike Yaaba, Pather Panchali does situate its story historically, but the conflicts of the day, land ownership and taxation, are barely alluded to, caste never at issue.
The isolation of the village in Yaaba leaves aside complex social, political, and historical issues. Instead the plot turns on superstition and human foibles. Western audiences are unlikely to connect Sana's marginal position to her status as an orphan. Rather, they are encouraged, once again, to assign superstition to the Other while taking their own supposed rationality for granted and forgetting how ready we are to blame others for our misfortunes. There is barely a hint that the village in a way killed Sana: we saw her exposed to the rain, and we know that, with her hut burned down, she had no place to dry herself. The constancy of the two friendships—between the two children, and between Bila and Sana—assures us that we are witnessing a society in harmony but for superstition and personal failings. The occasional quarrels between Bila and Nopoko dissipate quickly with a joke and a smile: they make us anticipate their lovers' quarrels to come in just a few years' time. And the tension created between Bila's parents by his mother's affirmative role is contained by her humor and his father's acquiescence.
If Yaaba fails to convey the full reality of contemporary African villages, it shares with most African films a realism in plot that distinguishes it from much Western film production. This realism is particularly striking in the ending, which gives us neither happy end nor great drama: the lovers elope, Sana dies quietly in her sleep, and Ouedraogo keeps us at a distance as he compresses much of her burial in a long shot. The woman who saved Nopoko's life has remained an outcast, Noaga has been abandoned by his wife, and the camera lingers on the children who run into the distance and, we may presume, a better future. Yaaba is an African production, altogether different from Western films situated in Africa, even as it reaches out to Western audiences.
Ouedraogo went on to become the most important African filmmaker since Ousmane Sembène in terms of the quantity of his production—he has directed seven feature films to date—as well as the appeal of his films. Two years after Yaaba, Kini and Nopoko appear as lovers in Ouedraogo's A Karim na Sala (1991). Tilaï, released in 1990, dramatizes a legend explicitly set in the precolonial past. Ouedraogo's film, Kini and Adams, released in 1997, once again tells a story of friendship. But it is a very different story. From the constancy of the friendship between two children and an old woman in a village that time forgot, Ouedraogo takes us to two men struggling to realize their aspirations in a world that is constantly changing—even out in the "bush." Now the endurance of friendship, however profound, is no longer assured.