Set in Chad, Abouna – which translates as ‘Our Father’ – is a small-scale study of two children searching for their father. Tahir and his little brother Amine get up one morning to discover their father is missing. When he doesn’t turn up that afternoon to referee the local kids’ football game they know it’s serious. They look around the city for him only to discover a double life – for the past two years he has pretended to go to work.
John Lanchester’s novel Mr Philips and the recent French movie Time Out are also about family men who secretly abandon their jobs. Abouna, though, is not about the husband and father but about the effect on the children and their mother. In the local cinema the boys believe they see their father onscreen. They sneak back to steal the film reel and are arrested by the police. Their mother, determined they should learn right from wrong, sends them to a Qur’anic boarding school in the countryside. There the boys are beaten and dream of escape. Desperate for their father – whom they believe they’ll find in Tangiers – the brothers escape, intending to walk from Chad to the Mediterranean.
African cinema rarely gets to our screens. Haroun’s 1999 first feature, Bye Bye Africa, was mainly shown in a touring Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Abouna, his follow-up, has a somewhat wider distribution. See it if you can. With a soundtrack by Ali Farka Touré, it’s a refreshing alternative to multiplex dross.