Faro: Goddess of the Waters (2007)

Director: Salif Traoré

2007 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Faro is a real goddess of a real tribe (the Bamana) in the West African country of Mali. In a landlocked country like Mali, covered in part by the Sahara Desert, water is a resource that can never be taken for granted. The Bamana village in Faro: Goddess of the Waters not only sits on a riverbank, but also depends for much of its food on fish from the river. Faro is the dominant character in this film, the unseen force for which all action takes place.

Faro%201.jpgOn its surface, Faro: Goddess of the Waters seems like a conflict between tradition and modernity. The protagonist of the film is Zan (Fily Traoré), a young man who has been away from the village for years getting an education and earning money and position in the larger world. His departure was not entirely voluntary because he is a bastard, and such children are allowed to stay until they can survive on their own and then are cast out because they are bad luck. One day, he drives his SUV into the village and moves into his mother Niele’s (Rokia Traoré) house.

Many of the village elders are scandalized that Zan would return, predicting trouble and complaining about the lack of discipline among the villagers in upholding the traditions of the tribe. Another worry for the village is the behavior of Kouta (Maimouna Hélène Diarra), a widow originally from another village who feels no compulsion to mourn the way the village wants her to.

Faro%203.jpgMeanwhile, back on the river, fishing is bad and there is a strange current that has the villagers scared. Kouta’s daughter Penda (Djénéba Koné), sad at the loss of her father and trying to dodge her former fiancé Boura (Michel Mpambara), goes to the river with her friends to wash clothes. There, it appears that her wash bowl is snatched from her hands by something in the water; then it goes after Penda. She is rescued from drowning, but appears bewitched by the spirit of Faro. The village chief (Sotigui Kouyaté) declares the river off limits until he can consult with the shamaness Hamady (Balla Habib Dembélé) to find out what Faro wants.

Zan, trained as an engineer, has abandoned his belief in Faro the goddess, but not his reverence for the importance of water. He also has been deeply hurt by the branding of bastard and seeks to find some justice from the village. He comments ruefully, “The world evolves but nothing changes here.” Despite himself, he pays attention to the rituals and tests conducted in the village to root out the evil that is blighting the river and Penda.

Faro%207%20edit.JPGIn fact, the village is really not so different from the outside world. The social relationships between the villagers, the secrets and hurts and passions, all rule the daily life of the village much more than its religious customs. At its heart, Faro is a very human story. But it also offers a window onto an authentic village society whose customs make a great deal of sense within their context and are more progressive in their own way that life in more developed communities. For example, one of the village men burns down a sacred roof. Until the roof is rebuilt, the power of the chief transfers to Hamady. She passes her bowl of wool, signifying feminine power in the domestic realm, to the chief and gets in return his canoe paddle, signifying male authority derived from fishing. I was very moved by this male/female balance in Bamanan society.

Although some scenes didn’t seem to follow logically, as though they were edited badly, the film is very compelling to watch. It’s a bit like a whodunit, and has a strong narrative drive that pulls you along. I really felt I understood these people, this village, both of which are completely alien to my experience and culture.

The creative team and actors in this film are responsible for some of the finest films to have come from Africa in recent years. Faro: Goddess of the Waters is another fine showing from this rich film center. l

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