Director: Hachimiya Ahamada
The Union of the Comoros is a tiny island nation off the eastern coast of Africa – consisting of three main islands and the disputed territory of Mayotte. The islands have a total population of under a million, and a recent political history full of turmoil. Around half the population lives below the poverty line, and since the country’s independence from France in 1975, there have been more than twenty coups and attempted coups. Predictably, therefore, the Comoros has very little in terms of a local film industry.
However, after looking to the Comorian diaspora, I am satisfied that I have found something that meets the definition of a Comorian feature film. That film is Ashes of Dreams – a poetic, feature-length documentary filmed entirely in The Comoros by Europe-based Comorian filmmaker Hachimiya Ahamada, and by her Comorian father. I would like to preface this entry by expressing my gratitude to Hachimiya for providing me with access to an English-subtitled copy of the film when I was unable to find one.
Born and raised in Dunkerque, France, Ahamada did not set foot in the Comoros until adulthood. As a child, the islands seemed almost imaginary to her. Her father remained on Grande Comore for years and planned to send for Hachimiya and her siblings once he had finished building them a family home in the village of Ouellah Itsandra. During this time he made tapes on an old camcorder that both document his progress on the house, and capture the essence of the islands to which he hopes his family will soon be able to return. The tapes were sent to France and represented some of the only images that a young Hachimiya had of the Comoros. And although this house was never finished, the tapes remained, and the footage makes up a significant portion of Ashes of Dreams.
This footage from the early 1990s forms one of three time periods depicted in the film. With only minimal editing and manipulation by the director, these sequences can still be deeply touching. In the opening scene of Ashes of Dreams, we see Ahamada’s father giving a video tour of the unfinished house. As he describes the planned layouts of bedrooms and bathrooms, he paints a picture of an idyllic family life in the Comoros that we know will never come to pass. In particular, a shot of the solemn man sitting alone at the dining room table aches with poignancy.
The second part of the timeline is the family’s first holiday to the Comoros several years later, after the father’s passing. They visit the unfinished house, and attempt to rediscover their Comorian identity. In voiceover narration, the director ruminates on national identity, and the relationship between a country and its diaspora.
The third, and longest, section of the film takes place in 2011, when the director returns to the Comoros by herself, trying to honour her father’s dream and reconnect with her cultural heritage. At this point the film effectively becomes a road movie, as the director travels across the archipelago capturing striking images of daily life in the Comoros, interviewing locals about current affairs and the future of the country, and trying to reconcile her own two cultural identities.
The most interesting thing about Ashes of Dreams is how Ahamada is able to fit her own life story into the narrative of the Comoros as a whole. For many Comorians, financial success is only achievable outside of the islands, and the Comoros represents an idyllic homeland to someday return to, not a place to live one’s whole life. They leave the islands – for Europe, Mayotte, or elsewhere – in order to have a better life in the Comoros when they return, but too often are unable to do so. The film’s title is an acknowledgement of this difficulty, as the Comoros become, for so many, like a dream or a mirage. An island paradise. A finished, concrete, family house.
With an effective blend of old amateur footage and modern documentary filmmaking, Ashes of Dreams manages to tell several stories about the Comoros simultaneously. It is, on one level, a road movie, documenting the varied and fascinating lives of Comorians across all four islands. It is also an experimental, stylistically and visually engaging meditation on national identity. And last but not least, it is the intimate, small-scale drama of a family caught between two cultures – with a father determined for his children to see and experience their homeland, and a daughter who ultimately makes the long journey to do so herself. The film is beautiful and bittersweet, nostalgic yet authentic. The Comoros is obviously a place of fascinating depths, and I sincerely hope these islands produce more filmmakers in the future.