katy lena ndiaye’s “awaiting for men” is set in the beautiful red-walled city of oualata, in southeastern mauritania. the film is based on a series of intimate interviews with three women who speak with candor about their relationships with men. the cinematography is rich with the bold colors, patterns and textures of northwest africa. the pace of the film is unhurried, almost languorous. there is a stillness to the film. it has an uncluttered, poetic quality.
oualata was one of the four ksours (arabic for village) erected between the 11th and 12th centuries in what is now mauritania. these settlements were built around a mosque, mostly a simple unadorned prayer hall comprising a madrassa or islamic school, with the houses radiating outwards from this center and getting progressively bigger. the entire ksour was contained within a single continuous wall and many of the village’s amenities were shared – there were common storehouses, ovens, baths, shops, etc. the four kasours were immensely prosperous until the 16th-17th centuries. not only were they trade posts for caravans traveling across the sahara but they also became renowned centers of islamic thought and culture, attracting a multitude of foreign students. it is said that some mauritanian libraries and schools have managed to preserve over 40,000 extremely rare, priceless islamic manuscripts. however, with the gradual desiccation of the sahara much of the farmland that was fertile enough to feed local inhabitants has now become buried in sand.
a faltering economy is apparent in the film, as most oualata men seem to be employed elsewhere. it’s the women who inhabit the kasour for the most part. they take care of the cattle, run their shops, deliver babies, gossip while sipping mint tea, and wait (sometimes for months) for their men to return.
the women who are interviewed speak directly to the camera. they are frank, self-assured, articulate. they are also quite different from one another, a fact that belies western perceptions of other societies (especially muslim ones) as being homogenized, where the individual is largely overshadowed by the collective. many of them have had multiple marriages.
one woman, who exudes sheer power on screen, explains how she can only live with a man as long as she loves him. once she falls out of love, she divorces him. if he annoys her, she has no qualms about beating him. this woman is all business. she frequently challenges the director, the woman behind the camera, with a certain brazenness that’s rarely seen in interview subjects, irrespective of race, religion, ethinicity or gender. this woman is single right now, after going through 5 marriages. she supports herself by painting tarkhas (beautiful murals involving endlessly repeating designs that are painted exclusively by women on the exterior and interior walls of houses in order to highlight doors, windows and alcoves). she also makes money by using henna to draw the same arabesques on the hands and feet of women, and by playing conga drums.
another woman introduces herself by confessing that she is not the prettiest woman around but she likes to talk and men enjoy that. she is lively, down to earth and happy to share her innermost thoughts and feelings. she works as a midwife and runs her own clinic. she is madly in love with her fourth husband and isn’t shy about expressing her physical attraction to him. “a handsome man around here” she explains, “is a man who is generous and tall and can please his woman.”
the third woman is the most reserved. she owns a shop and dreams of one day owning an entire market. she is demure and when prodded too much about her sex life, she turns away, saying “that’s enough, you tire me.” she struck me as being better off than the other two. for her, painting tarkhas is a hobby, not a source of income.
i moderated a discussion after the film. it was most interesting. some in the audience were frustrated by the lack of information, the focus on three women only, the conversations about men and women to the detriment of the women’s interactions with their children, families, communities. some thought the film was a bit too slow, every shot even though beautiful was held for a bit too long. someone thought the women were “sad” because one of them posits that girls don’t need to be educated and another confides how she staged a fall in order to abort an unwanted pregnancy.
others enjoyed the film’s lyricism. they compared it to a piece of music. i agree. as with poetry, everything does not need to be explained away. sometimes a film, even a documentary, can simply create a mood, a feeling, a thought without having to formulate a formal beginning or end. that’s certainly true of french cinema – much of it is open-ended, something that american audiences find frustrating. i like to fill in the blanks and make the film my own. viewing becomes more participative, more active.
i certainly didn’t find the women “sad”. it’s unfortunate that we apply a rigid western or maybe even “christian missionary” filter to how we view other cultures. we have such confidence in our achievements as a society that our instinctive, gut level reaction is one of condescension towards what is different. it’s like this discussion i took part in on facebook, where someone asked if “third world” was an offensive term. many agreed that it was a judgmental term. to me it almost sounds like “third rate”. someone exclaimed: why not just call them poor countries? my answer was: poor in terms of what, really? over-consumption? obesity? materialism? capitalistic greed? production of waste? many third world countries r much richer in how families and communities function. their relationship to the environment is far less toxic. if first world countries stopped exploiting and interfering in third world countries, the gap between them would lessen over time. we seem to transpose our template for what we see as “civilization” onto other cultures without trying to develop an understanding of their circumstances – climate, geography, history, economy, ethnography.
to me the women seemed quite independent, both financially and emotionally. they were used to living on their own. they were well-adjusted, content, confident in who they were. education does not mean the same thing to them as it does to us. i don’t think that the men were much more educated. education refers mostly to studying the quran and hadith. mauritanians are a mixtures of original african agriculturalists, nomadic north african berber tribes and yemeni arabs who conquered the region in the 11th century. in berber society women have a preeminent role, as mothers of the clan. they r the ones who are educated in the histories of their ancestral tribes and they pass on that oral tradition from one generation to another. some of that matriarchal culture is reflected in the attitudes of the three women. the ease with which they divorce men is probably made easier by islam, which gave women the right to divorce in the 7th century.
as far as abortion, with all our western civilization and its legal protections for women, isn’t it sad that a doctor who performed late term abortions was recently shot in the united states? harassment, death threats, murder and terrorism are used to stop women from having abortions. we have a long way to go before we can criticize mauritanian culture.
the slow rhythm of the film with its abundance of still shots, seemed to be informed by photography. i was happy to learn from an interview with katy nadiaye that the film was in fact inspired by a book of photographs called “africa paintings”.