«Cercle des noyés» (Circle of drowned men) was the name given to a group of political prisoners whose detention in Mauritania in the mid-1980s is barely remembered in the country today.

Ian Mundell
Ian Mundell is a film and arts journalist based in London and Brussels.

Drowned In Oblivion

Pierre-Yves Vandeweerd.

Belgium/France 2007, 75 min.

»A group were released in the early 1990s on the understanding that they kept a low profile, and even discussing their imprisonment was dangerous. As their numbers diminished due to old age and illness, they began to fear that all trace of what had happened to them would disappear. They were even beginning to forget themselves.

18760314-jpg-c_300_300_x-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxxPierre-Yves Vandeweerd’s film is a collaboration with the survivors of the group that aims to preserve their experience and express their feelings of slipping into oblivion. The Belgian filmmaker met the group while working on other documentaries in Mauritania, and during a decade of visits to the country, he and his collaborators secretly recorded the former prisoners’ memories. When the group decided to take the risk of making a film, this material became the basis for its narrative.

One of the former prisoners, Fara Bâ, speaks for all of them in a commentary that distils their common experience and recounts precise memories and feelings, even dreams. It tells of arrest and imprisonment in the capital, Nouakchott, where contact with family members was still possible, then transportation. Their final destination was Oualata, an old fort more than a thousand kilometres away in the desert, where desperate living conditions were made worse by forced labour and torture.

In choosing images to accompany this hypnotic narrative, Vandeweerd concentrates on the places where the prisoners were detained rather than the people themselves, although they do appear briefly. Apart from the commentary, the only direct testimony comes from brief interviews with Fara Bâ’s veiled wife and a former guard at the fort.

Filmed on HD video, in black and white, Vandeweerd shows the streets of Nouakchott and the desolate road on which the prisoners travelled to Oualata. Sand is constantly blowing across this harsh landscape, often obscuring our view of people and buildings. The strongest of these haunting images come from the fort itself, deserted at the time of filming except for a couple of watchmen. Even here the traces of what happened to the men are vanishing.

With only passing reference to the issues for which the men were imprisoned (the rights of Black Africans in a society dominated by Moorish groups), “Drowned in Oblivion” is a highly evocative, even poetic, exploration of the cost to the human spirit of being a political prisoner.

 


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