Yaaba means grandmother in Moorea. It is the name given by Bila, a wide-eyed 12 year old boy to the wizened Sana, an old woman who is treated as an outcast by the rest of the village. Yaaba is a delightful and beautifully crafted film depicting life in a dusty village on the barren, flat plains of Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta). The director Idrissa Ouedraogo, making his second feature (after the acclaimed The Choice), shapes this simple but mythic drama with perfect control. It is without reference to time, place or the world beyond this isolated community.
The film begins at a burial ground where a young girl, Nopoko, and her cousin, Bila, (both played by members of the director's family) visit the grave of Nopoko's mother. Here they see Sana, the old woman. She is a pariah, thought to be a witch and blamed for most of the village's misfortunes, and so the children are afraid of her at first. But when they see for themselves that she is merely a harmless old woman, they befriend her. They call her 'Yaaba'. "This is the first time someone called me grandmother", she says, "and that makes me happy." Bila steals a neighbour's chicken, and brings it to Yaaba as a gift which they eat together. When Bila and Nopoko have a fight with some other children and Nopoko is cut by a knife and becomes ill with tetanus, Yaaba tries to help. Because of her reputation as a witch, the adults resist her medical advice. Yaaba resolves to remedy the situation with typical tact and tenderness.
Yaaba is shot with a mostly stationary camera and hte simplicity of the details of village life emerges with extraordinary clarity. This film is universal in its observations of human nature; superstition, intolerance, petty theft, eavesdropping, bickering, infidelity, all are viewed good humouredly without moral judgements. The strength of Yaaba lies in its total familiarity with the world it depicts, and the extremely simple way in which a complex problem is recounted and resolved. It is a film free of artifice, always respectful of the community it depicts and never romanticizing life.