Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Befriend Your Local Witch

How do you spot a witch? Is it the old woman who lives alone outside of town? That seems to be about all the criteria necessary to brand the title character of 1989's Yaaba. "Yaaba" actually means something like grandmother, generally applied to older women in the Burkina Faso village where the film takes place, but only one little boy calls calls this particular woman Yaaba. To everyone else she's Sena or just "the witch" in this somewhat cliche but interesting film.

It's less interesting for its central plot than for the array of characters it introduces to create the feeling of a small community, coming across almost like a Frank Capra movie. All the characters, like the ostracised old woman, are types more than people--there's the wise town drunk, the angry, insensitive father, the patiently smiling and unflappable mother.

The movie is told from the perspective of two children, a boy and girl, Bila (Noufou Ouedraogo) and Nopoko (Roukietou Barry), who meet the old woman (Fatimata Sanga) in a graveyard at the beginning of the film and for some reason take a liking to her. Later we see them tackling another group of children who throw rocks at her.

Of course, when a child becomes sick it's only Sena that recognises it's tetanus and not malaria and it's only Sena who's inexplicably able to contact the great healer in a neighbouring village and convince him to come help the child. How a supposedly ostracised woman has better contacts than anyone else in the village is not explained.

The movie reflects real, southwest African superstition which frequently blames various ills on witches though those witches are rarely identified as actual living people. There's a nice realism to the film's locations and sets and despite the broad characters one has the impression of seeing daily village life.

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