Sounds Of Sand (Si le vent soulève les sables)

Belgium (2006) Marion Hänsel

Those of you on Twitter may have seen the hashtag “First World Problems” which people apply to their whinges about the stupid little things which blight their day. While we can joke about things like this, sometime we do forget that for people in other countries life and death situations can revolve around something we take for granted.

Belgian director Marion Hänsel has adapted the novel Chamelle by Marc Durin-Valois to illustrate such a point, presenting a provocative and emotionally driven tale about one family’s struggle for survival. Set in a nameless part of Africa (by design to make the story feel universal) a small village is suffering from a severe lack of water and with no rain forthcoming, the only option is to cross country in search of somewhere with greater water supplies.

The family central to this tale are schoolteacher Rahne (Issaka Sawadogo), his wife Mouna (Carole Karemera Umulinga) and their three small children, sons Ako (Saïd Abdallah Mohamed), Ravil (Ahmed Ibrahim Mohamed) and daughter Shasha (Asma Nouman Aden). While the villagers plan to head south, Rahne decides it would be better to go east instead. With just a camel, some sheep, goats and meagre belongings, the family set off alone oblivious to the treacherous journey ahead of them.

It sounds too fundamentally naive to be the premise for such a powerful tale but we know from the TV donation appeals to supply water for African villages, knows this is real. It would be remiss to not address one issue that might cloud the authenticity of this story for some – aside from the dialogue being in French – which is how well attired and groomed everyone is. A natural commodity like water is a scarcity yet they have brightly coloured clothes, durable shoes, sparkling white teeth – hell, Rahne remains clean shaven for the duration of this lengthy trek!

However the main themes and the horrors endured carry a tremendous weight in making the above outlined aesthetic realisation a foible we can begrudgingly overlook. As the journey progresses the cast portray the physical toll it takes with their noticeable reduction in energy aided by some convincing make-up, giving them some deeply uncomfortable looking dried, chapped lips.

Shot in Djibouti, a genuine hot African sun beats down on the cast and crew providing some added legitimacy to the suffering of the characters, the discomfort of which permeates through the screen. This blistering location does lend itself to some startling visuals and gorgeous looking landscape shots, captured by DP Walther van den Ende, making the vast white sands disappearing into the horizon seem like a cosy and peaceful place for a post dinner stroll.  

But for all the eye catching treats it gives us, the desert is also home to many real and unpleasant dangers born of man. Africa is a war torn nation and among the sandy dunes and rocky hideaways various army factions can be found, and pleasantness isn’t a personality trait they are familiar with. Rahne first encounters Lassong (Emile Abossolo M’bo) who sweet talks Rahne and others into giving up one animal a day for protection and provisions.  

After a fellow villager goes mission bartering a deal with Lassong, Rahne moves his family on along, using a map Lassong gave him which later proves fruitless. They encounter a second gun toting squad who (amazingly) mistake the family for a rebel army. In convincing them otherwise, Rahne is asked buy the leader to give up one of his sons to the army in a heartbreaking Sophie’s Choice moment.

It gets worse for the family when they encounter a renegade group who force Rahne to send Shasha out to detect live mines by walking across the route ahead. There is a significance to this scene as at the start of the film, when Shasha was born, Rahne’s father suggests he smother his daughter to ease the financial burden. Mouna was having none of it but the relationship between father and daughter is awkward at best, more so for Rahne.

Political commentary, at least on the subject of war, is not a key concern for Hänsel or Marc Durin-Valois, but it adds a much needed frisson to the plight of the family beyond the debilitating heat. As suggested above, the family bond is brought into question, starting with Rahne’s distant relationship with Shasha, who in turn is fiercely loyal to her mother.

This arduous journey is a real test of the family’s resolve on both a physical and mental level, while their own personal ways of dealing with the various hurdles and tragedies is also measured. When a goat dies Shasha tries to will it back to life, Rahne insists they leave it for dead. It is worth noting how well behaved the animals were in this film, including the camel, a notoriously fickle and inhospitable beast when it wants to be.

It has to be said that the ending could be viewed as a tad patronising and perhaps a little politically safe in the name of mainstream acceptance and appeal, but after the ordeal the family endure, it would be too cruel not to allow them to experience a flicker of hope.

With a cast of mostly unknowns and non-professionals, the performances are nuanced and sublimely naturalistic. Of the known faces, Issaka Sawadogo possesses a quite dignity as Rahne, occasionally frustrating with his single-mindedness but ostensibly a good man. Carole Karemera Umulinga is similarly sturdy yet graceful as Mouna, creating a convincing motherly bond with the younger co-stars, most notably Asma Nouman Aden, whose tour de force essaying of Shasha makes the fact this is her sole acting role a shame.

Sounds Of Sand may be light on making a bold statement but its emotional impact and exploration of a simple theme has a lasting and poignant effect, and makes one appreciate the creature comforts we take for granted this side of the world.