Life in a small community in the African nation of Chad is vividly evoked in “Our Father,” writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s follow-up to “Bye Bye Africa,” which was a prizewinner at Venice in 1999. The story of two brothers whose lives are changed forever when their father leaves without saying a word, Haroun’s film is both touching and, ultimately, almost perversely optimistic. Further fest exposure for this quality item could result in deserved TV sales.
N’Djamena is a hot, dusty community not far from the border between Chad and Cameroon. Fifteen-year-old Tahir (Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa) and his 8-year-old brother Amine (Hamza Moctar Aguid) live here with their parents. They’re happy, lively, fun loving kids until the day their father fails to turn up, as promised, to referee an amateur soccer match.
Their mother (Zara Haroun) tells them that their father has simply left home without saying a word. They go to his workplace to look for him and discover he hasn’t been employed there for over two years, though he said nothing about losing his job.
This discovery understandably has a profound effect on the siblings. They play hooky from school and roam the nearby town looking for their father, but with no success. One afternoon, they go to the local cinema (where the posters on display suggest some eclectic programming which includes Chaplin’s “The Kid” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise”). The locally made film they see features a man they believe to be their father, and later they sneak into the cinema and steal a reel of the print in a vain attempt to discover more about their missing parent. The authorities quickly catch up with them, to their mother’s shame.
She decides to place them in a far-off boarding school run along strict religious lines. When the boys try to escape to search for their father in Morocco, where they have learned he is living, they’re quickly captured, punished and beaten. Tahir is chained to a post until he promises never to try to run away again. Meanwhile, Amine, who is asthmatic, becomes seriously ill.
With all these woes in the lives of these resilient boys — and there are more to come — it might be imagined that “Our Father” is a gloomy piece of work. But Haroun never allows the film to descend merely into a catalog of misery. On the contrary, it’s a life-affirming and optimistic work of considerable charm; indeed, it could be said that the director errs on the side of presenting an excessively rose-colored view of the world.
There is a sure sense of place, of this small community on the edge of a larger town, with the details of everyday life gently observed. And the film’s greatest asset is the charismatic performances of the two young actors, whose inexperience before the camera never shows.
“Our Father” is handsomely mounted, with assured camerawork, sleek editing and an attractive music score.