A young boy and girl run across the vast, rosy-brick colored landscape at the opening of “Yaaba” (at the Nuart); we see them in the same shot at the close. All that will have taken place in between is a world of understanding.
“Yaaba’s” power sneaks up on you. At first it seems as spare as the airy African Savannah where it unfolds. It’s only with a little distance from its muted beauty that the plan of the film becomes clear.
Writer-director Idrissa Ouedraogo won the International Critics’ Prize at Cannes last year for this tender film, his second feature, which he set in a village in Burkina Faso near the one in which he was born. (Before 1984, Burkina Faso had been the French colony of Upper Volta.) Not a fable, a myth or a fairy tale, “Yaaba” concerns the human comedy, told in terms of the greatest elegance and simplicity.
Plot is not what drives the film. Like a warm-country “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” most of this is life overheard, caught a little on the bias. This remote African town might be a rural French village or a Spanish one--with its town drunk, its village beauty, its handsome widower, its parents, both stubborn and sensible and its old, old woman thought to be a witch.
She is the proud, outcast Sana (Fatimata Sanga), her gray hair cropped close to her skull, her rare smile an utter surprise. The film’s two main children, 12-year-old motherless Bila (Noufou Ouedraogo) and budding beauty Nopoko (Roukietou Barry), his cousin and closest friend, meet her on a forbidden visit to the cemetery as they pay their respects to Bila’s mother’s grave. In this setting and later, the children discover that this “witch” is a humorous, neat old party, innocent of everything of which she’s been accused.
Bila in particular takes to her. He brings her the present of a filched rooster and as they share its stringy roasted bones he calls her Yaaba, grandmother. It coaxes forth that smile: “That’s the first time someone has called me grandmother,” she says, “and it makes me very happy.”
The rest of his village is in no hurry to change their opinion that she is a witch and the source of their ills, particularly Nopoko’s short-tempered father. It will become a life-and-death matter when one of the children becomes seriously ill and no one will accept Yaaba’s advice about a cure. But director Ouedraogo is in no hurry to trot out a pat solution; he is having too good a time creating fine, quiet, wryly knowledgeable portraits from around the village.
The town drunk turns out to be also the wisest man in the place. His beautiful wife, probably wooed by his wits originally, is now repulsed by his drinking, while the impotence it brings on makes her prey to the local con artist. The town scold is also the mother of the three most impossible children in the place, while its most severe father is married to the most thoughtful--and effective--wife. And all of them are observed by the village voyeur, whose worldly “Ah! that’s life!” punctuates every spied lovemaking or adultery. His tolerance for human frailties, however, doesn’t slow him down one split-second from broadcasting the news everywhere.
This is the sort of rich mix of foibles that delighted Jean Renoir and seems to fairly energize Ouedraogo, whose work with this cast of non-professionals--many of whom are from his family--is flawless. Equally moving and lyrical is the lighting camerawork of Matthias Kalin and the delicately haunting music of Francis Bebey.
“Yaaba” (Times-rated: Family) closes elegiacally. In the film’s cemetery scene, director Ouedraogo noted the broken cooking pots of the dead, placed simply on top of their rounded grave sites. There is the sense at the end of his film of another cracked and empty vessel, its usefulness on this Earth over, its contents passed on to a younger soul and an infinite feeling of universality and closure.
A New Yorker Films release of a production by Arcadia Films (Paris), Les Films de l’Avenir (Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso), Thelma Film AG (Zurich), in co-production with Burkina Faso, TSR (Geneva), ZDF (Mainz) La Sept (Paris), Centre National de la Cinematographie (Paris), Federal Office of Cultural Affairs and Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (Bern), COE (Milan.) Writer-director Idrissa Ouedraogo. Producers Freddy Denaes, Michel David, Pierre-Alain Meir, Idrissa Ouedraogo. Camera Matthias Kalin. Sound Dominique Dalmasso. Music Francis Bebey. Editor Loredana Cristelli. With Fatimata Sanga, Noufou Ouedraogo, Roukietou Barry, Adama Ouedraogo, Assita Ouedraogo, Adama Sidibe, Ousmane Sawadogo.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.