Film Review: "Sounds of Sand"

The Sheltering Sky

The film "Sounds of Sand" by Marion Hänsel tells the tale of a family forced to leave their home after the village well runs dry. Ariana Mirza watched this parable of desperation and dignity

The film "Sounds of Sand" (Si le vent soulève les sables) by the Belgian director Marion Hänsel tells the tale of a family forced to leave their home after the village well runs dry. Ariana Mirza watched this parable of desperation and dignity

​​Little Shasha likes to laugh. And what she really likes is to make jokes about her father. For the big journey she is about to make with her parents and her brother she puts on her prettiest dress.

This "journey" Sasha so looks forward to is in fact a voyage into uncertainty. A whole village sets out, but they are only following a hunch, because it is unclear where there is any water still to be found. Somewhere in the north, as Shasha's father, the teacher hopes, or more likely to the west, as the village elder suspects?

Shasha's family's odyssey

Shasha's father chooses a long, painful route, confronting his family one by one with everything which plagues Africa. But his route is still no worse than those followed by other villagers; war, landmines, and the tyranny of people in power are encountered every way the compass points.

​​The drought has devastated the land on all sides; corrupt government troops and marauding rebels torment the population at every point.

With Sounds of Sand Belgian director Marion Hänsel succeeds in portraying a family which never loses its dignity even in the direst circumstances. The film manages this without resorting to pathos; watching carefully is enough.

Tiny gestures and minimal dialogue convey the image of an everyday life, all the more comprehensible to the viewer, the longer we accompany Shasha and her family. At some point the protagonists become so familiar it seems perfectly natural that despite everything which has occurred Shasha never loses her sense of humour, and her father stoically continues to show a sense of responsibility.

The majestic beauty of the desert

While we grow closer to the figures, the landscape in Hänsel's film remains alien and unapproachable. Using stunning images the film succeeds in capturing the majestic beauty of the desert in all its facets.

​​Shasha's family's odyssey begins in barren steppes where green trees have become a rarity. Even here the relentless drought has split the ground with deep cracks. As the journey continues, the scenery is increasingly encrusted and thorny. And finally every remaining path is lost in a gigantic sea of sand, on which a merciless sun beats down.

Marion Hänsel shot Sounds of Sand in Djibuti, east Africa. Although the country has been at peace since 2001, now just as before there is still extreme poverty, and the issues dealt with in the film also affected shooting: "Every day 150 people came asking for work."

As well as this, sudden hostilities between the Issa and Afar ethnic groups overshadowed the filming. "But that only happened in a particular region; I was warned not to film there, but I did it anyway."

The director deliberately avoided naming a particular location as the mise en scène for her story. Hänsel believes that what she is describing applies to so many countries in Africa that a more precise identification would simply be misleading.

Attentiveness to human suffering

The family are Muslims, but they could just as easily be Christians, or animists; the universal humanity of their story and their ordeal is what is depicted. Existential desperation born of climate change and political conflicts, the film says, does not restrict itself to a particular religious community or ethnic group.

The director found the raw material for her story in the novel Chamelle by Marc Durin Valois. She was delighted to find this blueprint, Hänsel explained in an interview, "because this novel contains everything I wanted to talk about in my film".

We are left with no doubt what this highly committed filmmaker is concerned with here. She seeks to draw attention to one of the greatest tragedies taking place in the world today.

How little the situation of the affected people has so far penetrated global public consciousness is made crystal clear in the film's key scene. When an aeroplane flies high above the desert, Shasha asks her father, "do you think they can see us?" The answer is as simple as it is sobering: "I don't think they even know we exist."

Ariana Mirza

© 2007

Translated from the German by Steph Morris

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