Sounds of Sand

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

27 August

Anglo-Zanzibar War, 1896

On this day in 1896, the shortest war in world history was fought, between the United Kingdom and the Sultanate of Zanzibar.

It lasted around 40 minutes and was caused by the death of the old Sultan, Hamad bin Thuwaini, who had been pro-British. According to a treaty of 1886, the Zanzibaris had to get British acceptance for any new sultan they chose. They didn’t. Instead they chose Sultan Khalid bin Barghash.

The British immediately issued an ultimatum calling on Khalid to yield to their authority. He refused and barricaded himself in his palace. At 9am local time, the ultimatum expired and the British attacked two minutes later, with three ships opening fire on the palace simultaneously.

The sultan fled at the first shot, leaving slaves and servants to continue the fighting until the sultan’s flag was cut down. In the 40 minutes of fighting (various sources suggest anything from 38 to 45 minutes), the British fired 500 shells and 500 Zanzibari men and women were killed or injured; British casualties amounted to a single British petty officer. By the afternoon the British had installed their preferred sultan, Hamud.

Sounds of Sand (2006, dir: Marion Hänsel)

Sounds of Sand is a remarkable film that plays out like an African version of one of those American droving westerns that’s about guys struggling against weather, distance, adversity and bad hats.

The bad hats declare themselves early on, seemingly, in the film’s opening sequence, during which a poor mother in tribal village who has just given birth hears overher husband and his mother talking. Smother the newborn child, says the husband’s mother, it’s for the best, what with the rains not being reliable, times being hard and the child being a girl.

The mother runs away. Having nowhere to go, she soon comes back. The husband hits her and she bleeds from the nose. He dabs the blood away and asks “What shall we call her.”

This opening sequence sets the tone for the whole film, which then cuts to nine years later, when the girl is bigger, the rains really have failed and the family is forced to up sticks, taking goats, camels, possessions, everything across the desert to where there is water, they believe.

It’s a gruesome journey of relentless harsh reality. Really grim stuff happens. The family come across a gang of rebel soldiers who hold them up and demand either a huge sum of money or one of their sons. One of the sons, knowing there is no money, instantly elects to go with the rebels. It’s that or they all die.

As I say, a droving western of journey and incident, though what marks Marion Hänsel’s film out is the fact that so many of the incidents are heart-stoppingly tense and that the film doesn’t rely on words: there is a fair bit of explicatory text early on to locate us in this arid milieu, but once it settles into its groove, Sounds of Sand tells its story through looks and gestures, visual cues, sound and the landscape.

Unlike many films set in Africa, this is no “plight of the African” drama. Well, it is, obviously, but it paints its small family unit as tough and resourceful humans rather than as a sociological problem, even when what’s left of the family wind up at a UNHCR camp. And they are stoutly individualistic – Rahne (Isaka Sawadogo), the father and his initially unwanted daughter, Shasha (Asma Nouman Aden), Mouna (Carole Karemera) the tender-hearted mother and her boys. And we understand by the end why the father’s mother – a heartless witch, or so it seemed – was being so hard-hearted. This is a tough place and sentimentality has to be saved for tiny moments, not splurged wholesale. A remarkable, powerful film.

Why Watch?

  • The fantastic performances
  • The brutal story it tells
  • Walter Van Den Ende’s cinematography
  • Africans as human beings making tough choices

Sounds of Sand – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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