Sounds of Sand

Isaka Sawadogo and Asma Nouman Aden in Sounds of Sand


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 her husband being counselled by his mother to smother her new born child – 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 entire family is forced to up sticks, taking goats, camels, possessions, everything across the desert to where they have heard there is water. It’s a gruesome journey of relentless harsh reality. Really grim stuff happens. They come across a gang of rebel soldiers, who hold them up and demand a huge sum of money or one of their sons. And one of the sons, knowing there is no money, instantly elects to go with them. It’s that or they all die, we understand instinctively, as the scene plays out. 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: though there is a fair bit of explicatory text early on to locate us in this arid milieu, once it settles into its groove, it tells its story through looks and gestures, visual cues, sound and the landscape.
And 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


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Sounds of Sand – Watch it now at Amazon





4 thoughts on “Sounds of Sand”

  1. I saw this film at the Palm Springs Film Festival and was fortunate to also participate in the Q&A session after the film with the director. This was a very good film about the struggles within the small villages in Africa that are lacking access to water. The film deliberately does not state a particular region of Africa because the story can be applied to almost anywhere across the continent. The film was really well casted and the cinematography was well depicted. I especially enjoyed the musical soundtrack. Bring a bottle of water with you to see this film because it will make you thirsty! We forget how difficult life is for others in regions of the world we are not very familiar with and I love these types of movies that remind us to remember others and their struggles. It is heartbreaking to think hundreds of thousands of people are struggling as those in this movie. The story focuses on one family in a village that decides to travel across a desert in search of water wells. There are no roads and no one can be trusted so their decision is life threatening but must be done because of the lack of water in their own village. The family crosses the desert and suffers tragedies along the way that bring you emotionally into the movie. There was one scene we had to laugh about, in the desert when the father and daughter were resting and leaning on the camel with a little make shift shade cover; they were on the wrong side of the camel because the other side had a LOT more shade then the sunny side they were on. Strongly recommend everyone to support films like this one, it's so important for us to help our neighbors and not just the ones with resources we want.

  2. POSITIVE REVIEW: Adapted from Marc Durin-Valois' prize-winning novel Chamelle by Belgian director Hänsel, this is the beautiful and moving saga of a little family somewhere in Africa forced to leave home and struggle eastward across the desert with their livestock in search of water. Along the way they endure great loss, danger, cruelty, and heartbreak. This film dramatizes many of the demographic and human problems that face the African continent: drought, revolution, lawlessness, poverty. Hänsel's powerful visual storytelling makes all these things real to us, while bringing alive the drama of human beings. Images are striking, and so are the people, and all the actors are fine, particularly the father Rahn e played by Isaka Sawadogo and his little daughter Shasha played by Asma Nouman Aden. Music is used deftly and economically. This is committed narrative film-making at its best. It brings home major issues but never seems preachy or doctrinaire. At the end, what remains of the family winds up in a UN camp. "This is my Pouzzi," says Sasha, using her pet name for her father. "He looks sad because he has lost his camel." The viewer will remember a series of striking, pathetic tableaux. A heartrending and vividly told tale.

    NEGATIVE REVIEW: Shot in Djibouti, Hänsel's film attempts to be universal by being unspecific in locale and by casting the dialogue by all and sundry entirely in rather academic French. Everything is generic and sanitized. If the family is desperately short of water, how come they have full wardrobes of immaculately clean clothes and are perfectly clean themselves? At the outset Rahne meets another man who says they should travel together because it's safer that way. "Yes," Rahne says, "we will travel together. We will leave before dawn to take advantage of the coolness." It's stilted elementary primer language. Even religious phrases that sound Muslim, like "God wishes it so," are said in French, when likely they would be said in Arabic. A bunch of wild looking outlaws speak the same academic French. An online viewer wrote that this is "a romanticized film made by a middle aged western woman aimed at…middle aged western women" and added, "naturally in the end the main characters get saved by white people from the West." And this is true. Hänsel uses the authentic setting and real-looking African actors to make us naive westerners believe that we're watching something real, but it's a downbeat fairy tale, none of which is true to a specific and coherent whole. Sawadogo, by the way, has lived in Norway for the last fifteen years.

  3. This heartbreaking film brings home the series of tragedies that can easily strike thousands if not millions of simple families during a time of drought and strife in East Africa. After viewing this film, I have a totally altered perspective when I hear news of any kind of conflict or movement of people in that region. This is a European production and the family whose tragedies we endure speak French. The acting was good and my English subtitles were coherent and legible, as a non-French speaker the language being spoken was irrelevant to me. I realize this might be a different case for others. The isolation and simplicity of this family's world and life was exceptionally well presented by writer/director Marion Hansel. Life and death choices made in complete ignorance, the randomness of the other people they came in contact with, and the randomness of the life altering results. It will leave you shaken by the cruelty that we as people are capable of. It is visually appealing as well, the stark desert landscapes are utilized well. When I saw this film at the Seattle International Film Festival a few years back, it was easily my favorite out of over 100 films that I had viewed at that year's festival.

  4. I've seen this movie at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. It was very very touching. A story about an African family that must undertake a journey to find water. The dangers underway are not in favor of these people. I don't want to say more, you have to see the rest for yourself!!

    I makes you realize that we can make a fuss about things that do not matter (too much). I mean in our, rich, world, the problems and challenges we encounter can be very real and frustrating. And although these problems can be very real, we also tend to make problems out of nothing: The very specific kind of dessert wasn't available in the supermarket, etc.

    This movie's a movie that you wouldn't watch with a bag of popcorn, but still I'd like to recommend it to get a more balanced view of the world we all live in.

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