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Faraw! Mother of the Dunes

(Mali, 1997, 90 minutes, color, 35 mm, in Songhoï with English subtitles)
Directed by Abdoulaye Ascofaré

Safiatou Mahaman. . . . . . . . . . Daughter
Aminata Ousmane . . . . . . . . . . Zamiatou
Balla Moussa Keita . . . . . . . . . .Husband

The following is taken from an article by Nick Thomas about the 1998 Cannes Film Festival that appears on

One of two films from Mali selected at this year’s Cannes, Faraw! is a family drama set against the immense backdrop of the Sahara desert, and was a hit at February’s Pan-African festival (FESPACO) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

Described by director and screenwriter Abdoulaye Ascofaré as a homage to his mother, who herself had a hard life, the film follows the fortunes of a mother struggling to look after her handicapped husband and three difficult children.

Faraw! shows the impact of visiting Europeans on the African family, and aims for a true sense of realism, rather than resorting to melodrama (although the film does include a dream sequence).

The film’s cinematographer, Yorgos Arvanitis, is better known as the regular collaborator of renowned Greek director Theo Angelopoulos. Here, he uses his skill to recreate the immensity of the desert, and to suggest its vast, silent, cruelty.

Ascofaré is full of praise for his lead actress, Aminata Ousmane, in her role as the mother of the sands. But perhaps the real star of the film is the Sahara itself, in the way it affects the life of all those who live with it.

Ascofaré has sought to replicate in his film the way the desert’s calm but persistent rhythm dominates the characters’ lives and controls their destiny.

The director is apprehensive about his film’s reception by non-African audiences, reflecting a widely held concern among African filmmakers that the particular qualities of African cinema are not properly understood or appreciated. But the welcome presence of Faraw! and the other sub-Saharan African films at Cannes this year should help rectify that situation.

The following is taken from an article by Andrew Worsdale that appeared in the Mail & Guardian (South Africa), November 19, 1998:

Most local film industry players were gathered in force with the continent’s counterparts at last Saturday’s M-Net All Africa Film Awards in Pretoria. The whole affair was like a Third World Oscars and was completely dominated by French—even the Arabaphones chose to use the Gallic tongue.

The Malian film Faraw! Un Mere des Sables captured the most awards, including the Grand Prize as well as Best Francophone Film, Best Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Lead Actress—the astonishing Aminata Ousmane Maïga, a Malian housewife who had never acted before.

In the movie, which is astonishingly moving, she plays a mother of three kids with a handicapped husband who endures immense hardship but refuses to prostitute her daughter. She gets help from a friend who lends her a donkey, which eventually enables her to sell water, giving inspiration to her ravaged family. Unfortunately I doubt we’ll get to see this debut feature film of director Abdoulayé Ascofare on the big screen, and it will probably be relegated to some late-night slot on the pay channel despite all the praise heaped upon it.

The following bio of director Abdoulayé Ascofare appears on the official website of the Cannes Film Festival:

Born in 1949 in Gao (Mali). In 1984, he graduated from the State Film School in the USSR. He worked as a radio presenter until 1978, then taught at the National Art Institute in Bamako. In 1985, he started working as a director at the National Film Production Center in Bamako. He directed several short films. His first feature film, Faraw! Une mère des sables (1997) was awarded the "Bayard d’or" for Artistic Creation at the Namur Festival [the International Festival of French Cinema in Namur, Belgium] in 1997. Earlier short films include Welcome (1981), M’sieur Fane (1983), L’hôte (1984), Sonatam, un quart de siècle (1990).

The following information about the Songhai culture is adapted from the World Book Encyclopedia and other sources:

The Songhai empire was a black trading state in Africa that reached its peak during the 1400s and 1500s. The Songhai nation emerged during the 700s, and by the 1400s had more power and wealth than any other west African empire. It extended from the central area of what is now Nigeria to the Atlantic coast and included parts of what are now Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal. Gao, the capital, stood on the Niger River.

Songhai became powerful chiefly by controlling trade across the Sahara. Most of Songhai’s people were farmers, fishers, or traders. The traders exchanged gold and other West African products for goods from Europe and the Middle East.

Two kings, Sunni Ali and Askia Muhammad, strengthened the empire more than any other rulers. Sunni Ali ruled from 1464 to 1492 and began a unified system of law and order, central government, and trade. His army conquered Timbuktu and Jenne, two West African trading centers. Askia Muhammad, also known as Askia I or Askia the Great, became king in 1493. Songhai reached its peak under his rule. Askia reorganized the government, expanded trade, and encouraged the people to practice Islam, the religion of the Muslims. His three sons deposed him in 1528. The empire ended in 1591 when a Moroccan army defeated the Songhai in the Battle of Tondibi.

Today, the Songhai are concentrated principally in Mali and Niger. Mali became a French colony in the late 19th century and achieved independence in 1960. The Songhai are one of several ethnic groups in Mali. Other groups include the Bambara (the largest single segment), Mandinka, Senoufo, Fula and Dogon. The majority of the population is Muslim and the official language is French, although Bambara is the country’s true lingua franca.

Most Songhai are engaged in agriculture. Men grow millet and sorghum in sandy fields and cultivate rice along the banks of the Niger River. Women tend gardens producing okra, tomatoes, onions, garlic and beans. The climate is one of the harshest in the world with heat indexes that reach 150 and little rainfall. Songhai settlements usually consist of round, mud or thatched dwellings with straw roofs. Although religious law allows a man to have up to four wives, most Songhai men have only one.

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