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Posted on Friday, 18 October 2013 13:22

Film: Comedy is not an African reality - Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

By Rose Skelton

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (R), director of Grisgris, whose Cannes festival selection shone a spotlight on Chad. The film’s handicapped protagonist must choose between his dreams of being a dancer and smuggling petrol to save his uncle’s life. Frank Verdier/Pili Films African film-makers must speak up for the young and dispossessed, says the Chadian director, whose films, delving deeply into the human heart and its suffering, have made him an ambassador for the seventh art.

 

Only one African director made it to the Festival de Cannes this year: Chad's Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, whose film Grigris was part of the official selection. Haroun had been there before, in 2010 when Un Homme Qui Crie (A Screaming Man) won the Prix du Jury, Cannes's third-most prestigious prize.

It had been 23 years since an African film, Yeelen by Malian director Souleymane Cissé, had won the same prize. But Haroun does not believe that the scarcity of African films at major international festivals is a question of politics.

Smiling is a cultural way of not showing one's problems, to keep one's dignity

"We [African directors] chase our tails, saying that there is no support for African film because politics doesn't want it or that people aren't interested in us. We have to work hard, try to listen to the world and ask ourselves, are we talking about subjects which interest everyone?

"Cinema is business; as soon as there is an excellent film which can bring money to people, they will take it. They're not going to say, 'No, we won't take it'. We can't play the eternal victim."

Grigris, named for the handicapped dancer protagonist played by Burkinabé Souleymane Démé, is a tale of tragedy underpinned by survival and success.

By night, Grigris dances in clubs where he has become something of a star. By day, his physical handicap prevents him from getting a job, and he is eventually dragged into the very real world of petrol smuggling conducted between Chad and Cameroon.

Grigris falls in love with a beautiful half-French, half-Central African prostitute. "These are two people who aren't where they belong," explains Haroun. "They are not completely integrated: one because he is handicapped, the other because she is not 100% African. Both of them are a bit put to one side, and in this margin they meet and fall in love."

Haroun has been making his mark at major film festivals for many years since his second feature Abouna (Our Father) – a tale of two brothers whose father disappears – received an award at the Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de la Télévision de Ouagadougou (FESPACO) in 2003.

This was followed by Daratt (Dry Season), which won the Grand Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2006, the first winner of that prize from the continent.

Make films, not war

Despite the lack of cinemas in Chad – its only one, Le Normandie, closed down during the Chadian civil war and was reopened following Haroun's win at Cannes in 2010 – he believes it is possible for African film to feature on the international stage at a high level.

"What is important is to give people the desire to do things well, to have examples that can inspire young people," he says. "We did not have a cinema for 30 years, but now we do. We saw Django Unchained by Tarantino at the same time as it came out in Paris. Through good quality work we can convince politicians that cinema is important."

Haroun was born in Abéché in 1961 and left Chad in the 1980s during the civil war. He arrived in France with his family, with only the address of a film school in his pocket.

Ever since seeing films at the cinema in Chad – his first was a Bollywood one – he wanted to make his own. After working first as a journalist, he later found his big opportunity.

All except one of Haroun's films, Sexe, Gombo et Beurre Salé, have been set in Chad. They are characterised by sweeping desert landscapes and lone figures surviving life's tragedies in cinematographically rich panoramas.

In Un Homme Qui Crie, the dying moments of the film show the protagonist letting his dead son's body float down the river, the water glistening silver in the warm evening glow of a sunset, with just the odd dark tree on the horizon. His soundtracks consist largely of the croak of cicadas.

Portraying Chad is something of a civil duty for Haroun, who says that, despite this, his next film will probably be set in France.

"If I make films in Chad, it's because there aren't that many Chadian film-makers and Chad would become invisible," he says, citing the lack of professional training as one of the reasons the art has suffered in his country.

"I want to show images of this country, which has been known only for war. If through cinema we can show a positive image of this country which I love, I consider it my obligation as a son of this country."

Despite this, Haroun's films are largely set against the backdrop of war and tell stories of heartbreak and suffering. He believes there is no place for comedy in an African film.

"Comedy is not an African reality," he says. "We don't smile because we are happy, we are smiling because we have to smile when there are difficult moments. Smiling is a cultural way of not showing one's problems, to keep one's dignity."

Yet behind the tragic stories lurk deeper, more uplifting tales of tight family bonds, love and the success of the underdog.

Abouna shows the playfulness of brotherly love and has at its heart an adventure. On his quest to bring his son back from the front, the protagonist in Un Homme Qui Crie speeds across a desert landscape wearing yellow snorkeling goggles.

"There is always humour in the films," says Haroun. "It's humour that makes life, it's not comedy. As long as there is humour, we are alive."

It is marginalised and dispossessed young people that Haroun most wants to explore and defend in his work. "[In Africa] there is a place for the older people in the family and not for those who come after," he says.

"We serve the oldest ones first and the younger ones are always the last. In the sharing of things, of riches, the young are automatically left out."

The proof, he says, as beautifully captured in Senegalese director Moussa Touré's film La Pirogue, is that it is young people who risk their lives leaving for Europe in canoes, not the older generation.

"It's these young people who struggle to give meaning to their lives, to try and find solutions, and that's what I wanted to tell."

Chad shows the way

The Chadian government financed Grigris, and it decided to fund a cinema school in the country after the success of Un Homme Qui Crie.

Haroun, who is in charge of creating the school, believes that each African country has to be an example to the next in promoting and making high-quality cinema.

Nonetheless, Haroun has cut his links with FESPACO, the biennial film festival in Burkina Faso. "In 2011, I decided not to set foot there again because it's disorganised. There is a lack of respect for the film-makers, there is a lack of vision and I absolutely refuse to support it with my presence," he says.

"The films are good when you see them at FESPACO but when you see them alongside 1,900 films coming from around the world, are you going to say that these are good?

"We cannot group ourselves together and say, 'We must think about African film'", he says. "Filmmakers can take their country somewhere, can say, 'Let's put something in place.' I would like Chad to be an example for other countries, for them to say, 'I want to do it like they did in Chad'". ●



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