Director Idrissa Ouédraogo once said that his 1989 film Yaaba was, “based on tales of my childhood and on that kind of bedtime story-telling we hear just before falling asleep." And indeed, viewers may find Yaaba as a reminder of the stories that we are told by our parents over glasses of warm milk and comfy covers. A simple morality tale, Yaaba is about a pair of young children who defy social conventions all in the name of doing what’s right. It exists in its own world, devoid of any kind of western influence. By shunning everything but the essential elements of the story, it becomes a timeless film that could have taken place thousands of years ago or centuries into the future. Josef Gugler perfectly sums it up by writing:
Nothing takes the viewer to pre-colonial times, nor is there any indication of a colonial presence. But if the action is contemporary, the village appears altogether isolated. There is no trace of government, taxes, schools, or clinics. Market relations do not reach beyond a big tree within walking distance where a few people gather with local products, even though coins are common: the diviner demands them, the beggar collects them, the children wager them.
For all immediate purposes, the village exists for one purpose: to serve as the backdrop for the story.
The story revolves around two children, a young boy named Bila and his cousin Nopoko. We first meet them in a graveyard where they offer water to their mother’s grave. It is there that they first meet Sana, an old woman who has been cast out of their village. Nopoko is obviously worried. After all, Sana was thrown out of the village because she was believed to be a witch. But Bila tries to calm her down by suggesting that they play a game of hide-and-go seek. Nopoko closes her eyes, counts to twenty, and starts to look for him. Unfortunately, he is nowhere to be found. But then Sana appears and silently points out where he is hiding. The two exchange a playful smile.
The rest of the film concerns the two children and their relationship with Sana. Sana is a decrepit old woman who lives in a small shack on the outskirts of town. How she survives by herself is a mystery. But we imagine that it must be a difficult life. After all, we see a group of children taking turns throwing rocks at her. One of them hits her in the head. Her reaction is to clasp her head and mournfully walk away. This has not been the first time that she has suffered such abuse and she has no reason to expect that it will be the last. So when Bila steals a chicken to give to Sana, she suspiciously regards him. She asks if he has stolen it. Does she suspect a trap or a trick? Could she be punished for eating it? But Bila lies and says that he didn’t. Quickly, her face lights up and she accepts the gift. They eat the chicken together and enjoy each other’s company. Bila calls her yabaa and compliments her cooking. Sana pauses for a moment and says that was the first time that anybody ever called her that. She smiles warmly and the two laugh. We suspect that this is the first time in a while that she has had any reason to do so.
But their happiness is short lived. Soon, Nopoko comes down with tetanus after she is accidentally stabbed during a scuffle with other boys from their village. Her family insists that it is malaria. However, as time goes by and it becomes apparent that Nopoko is getting worse, they hire a witch doctor who announces that Sana has stolen Nopoko’s soul. So the villagers depart to get rid of Sana. They burn her shack only to find that she has already left. So begins Sana’s journey to find medicine for Nopoko. She brings back a medicine man who knows how to treat tetanus. However, they are both expelled from the village. Thankfully, Bila’s mother secretly sends for him. He gives them a medicine which cures Nopoko of her disease. Whether or not a tetanus infection can be cured with a potion is up for debate. But the point is that Sana went out of her way to save Nopoko’s life only to be ostracized from the village.
The children visit her hut only to discover that she has died. They are later told that there was no real reason that Sana was so universally hated. The only thing that she did wrong was being an orphan after her mother died in childbirth and her father died of grief. The movie ends with Bila and Nopoko burying Sana. The astute watcher will realize that the first and last shot of the movie is the same one of Bila chasing Nopoko into the distance after eloping. And so life goes on. The memory of Sana will live on in them. We can only hope that the movie’s lesson has been learned by both the characters and the viewers.
In addition to a masterpiece of simple storytelling, Yaaba is a miracle of economic filmmaking. The entire production cost only about one million dollars. Ouédraogo would help cut costs by being both writer and director of the film and shooting it in Tougouzagué, a village near his birthplace. This allowed him to cast local villagers and relatives. His directing style was simple: act natural. It works magnificently. Ouédraogo would go on to become one of Africa’s most important filmmakers along with the legendary Ousmane Sembène. In 1990 he won the Cannes Special Jury Prize for Tilaï and the FIPRESCI Award for Yam Daabo (1986).
But probably the best honor that we can bestow upon him is to recognize his genius for film-making. Not many directors can evoke so much with so little as Ouédraogo. His film Yaaba is a testament to this. It is a simple story that evokes feelings and emotions that vastly outweigh the sum of its parts. It is a film with a distinctive African voice, and yet the story itself could be retold throughout the world in all civilizations and cultures. It is a story of the innocence of youth, the wisdom of old age, and the hope for a better tomorrow. As one villager in Yaaba keeps telling himself, “That’s life.”