Review: Night Nursery
by David Katz
- BERLINALE 2021: Moumouni Sanou’s first documentary feature is a lively if underdeveloped work examining a childcare home used by Burkina Faso sex workers
Put the modifier ‘night’ in the title, and your film is offered a shortcut to poetry: immediately the work is bathed in mystery, shadow, menace. Such is it here in Moumouni Sanou’s debut feature Night Nursery [+see also:
film profile], about an inner-city children’s home in Burkina Faso used as a drop-off for the local sex workers. You can imagine a benign front sign, featuring perhaps a dummy or a nappy, encrusted in neon for greater visibility; but there is no sense of irony or real despair here, just even-tempered acceptance. The film had its premiere in the prestigious Forum sidebar of the Berlinale.
Night Nursery also offers us an unusual on-screen director credit — this film is attributed to one Moumouni “Le Chat” Sanou. Directors are often fond of metaphors to help the audience intuit their particular angle on the subject matter, and Sanou’s perspective is indeed slightly feline: playful, distractible, fond of odd angles and crevices from where to observe our misery. His filmmaking style is neither excessively formal, nor pragmatically journalistic; his primary characters are always privileged in the frame, shot in a shallow focus that embosses their many close-ups and makes the film feel like it is made in their image. There is no cold, analytical distance here. This is counterposed with the teeming alleyways and slanted light sources of ‘the Black’, a street in Bobo-Dioulasso, shot in twitchy verité style.
His focus is on three main prostitutes living in a barely-appointed house, with no furniture, just outside the city. They are Adam’s, Odile and Fatim - the former’s son has grown up, whilst Odile is a single mother to Moctar, and Fatim (who’s just 18-years-old) to Djénéba. Sanou compresses time: the days are for lounging, reflection and solidarity, whilst working hours begin at night. (We wonder – is rest permitted?) The young children must be dropped off at the home, overseen by Mrs. Coda, who comperes a small, well-lit house marked by its array of mosquito nets.
The film’s main narrative arc is afforded to an absent woman, who left her son at Mrs’ Coda’s with unfulfilled promises of returning — a reminder of how this exclusively female network of solidarity passes the burden of care. Meanwhile, the three main characters are depicted more by the present, material conditions of their lives, than by their motivations or psychology; yet this is no flaw, and their routine engenders pity and sympathy solely due to our ability to witness. Sanou lets our imagination do the work, whilst the children giggle, play and (oddly late in their development) are breastfed by a wet nurse, hauntingly unaware of their mothers’ occupation.
The larger undercurrent here concerns gender expectations in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country which has experienced unrest, but has high levels of development and education. Women aren’t just confined to anachronistic concepts of ‘separate spheres’: forced marriages in villages and urban areas are common, and sex work is a likely fate for women who don’t conform. Night Nursery is predicated on the more enlightened view of sex work we have now: an occupation deserving autonomy and respect, but with the double-edged notion of its role in women’s continued subjugation.
It’s a testament to Sanou that he’s able to embody these ideas whilst focusing on such quotidian matters, and avoiding any didactic anger. The film’s short length is however unsatisfying, giving the impression of a very well-done film conservatory project. Sanou clearly has much more to say.
Night Nursery is a co-production between Burkina Faso, France and Germany produced by Berni Goldblat of Les Film du Djabadjah, Faissol Gnonlonfin of VraiVrai Films and Meike Martens from Blinker Filmproduktion. World sales are also by Les Films du Djabadjah.
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