The Chadian cinema industry is small, with two prominent filmmakers—Mahamat-Saleh Haroun and Issa Serge Coelo. But these two may be the beginning of something much greater, if a new film school in N’Djamena has its way. The school has been helped by Haroun, who won the Grand Special Jury prize at Venice for Daratt (Dry Season), and the Jury Prize at Cannes for A Screaming Man.
As the country’s premier director, Haroun acknowledges that “audiences all around the world have a lot of clichés about African cinema.” But his films, which feature non-professional actors, are created to honor the Chadian people and their experiences. Haroun’s films are spare, he says, because his childhood was “simple and bare.” His style of filmmaking is influenced by his landscape and his culture. “Light and shadow are part of daily life in the desert,” he observes, and this informs his filmmaking. “Visually, I like to compose my frame like a painting. Sometimes, a painting can move you without you understanding it. I try to mix different colors to generate emotion and let the audience feel the feeling of the character(s).”
His features and documentaries are dramas about struggle and change, family and loss. War is often lingering in the background. Or, as he explains, “I try to tell stories that concern my country, my people, stories that have never been told.”
Sotigui Kouyaté: A Modern Griot (1996)
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s illuminating 1996 documentary is a portrait of Sotigui Kouyaté, a griot (storyteller) who was brought to Paris by Peter Brook for The Mahabharata. Kouyaté eventually started his own modern African theater company. Haroun weaves together interviews, film clips and videos of Kouyaté teaching acting as well as his remarkable performances. His son explains that his father was especially convincing as a tuberculosis patient, people thought he was sick. Sotigui Kouyaté also addresses the economic hardships the griot faced while struggling to find work, and other details, such as his talents as a soccer player, and work as a doctor/healer. A poignant section in the film depicts Kouyaté’s return home to his African village where he was raised. The film clips are fantastic, and inspiring. Viewers unfamiliar with the griot will be eager to see his performances given how Haroun showcases this magical performer.
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Daratt is a deeply affecting drama about forgiveness and reconciliation. After a news report from the Truth and Justice Commission grants general amnesty to Chad’s civil war criminals, Gumar Abatcha (Khayar Oumar Defallah), a blind man, gives his grandson Atim (Ali Barkai)—his name means “orphan”—a gun to kill Nassara (Youssouf Djaoro), the man who murdered Atim’s father. Atim soon finds Nassara, a baker, in N’djamena. But rather than avenge his family right away, Atim learns the baker’s trade, eventually becoming like a son to Nassara. Haroun artfully stages many intense, wordless exchanges between Atim and Nassara. These scenes speak volumes, and Barkai’s expressions powerfully communicate his fascination and contempt for his intended victim. Haroun’s spare, elegant direction is full of striking images, especially in the taut scenes of Atim drawing a bead on Nassara. Daratt is an arresting parable about forgiveness that builds to a devastating climax.
A Screaming Man (2010)
This incredibly powerful drama by Mahamet-Salah Haroun has Adam (Youssouf Djaoro, from Daratt) fighting for his job as a pool attendant at a fancy hotel in N’djamena as a civil war erupts. “The pool is my life,” Adam, an ex-swimming champ, tells Mme Wang (Heling Li), the owner of the hotel where he has worked for thirty years. However, she reassigns him to be the hotel’s gatekeeper. Adam’s son Abdel (Diouc Koma), is promoted to pool attendant—until he is conscripted by the military. The tensions between father and son permeate every frame, from a silent dinner to the poignant, haunting finale. Haroun never milks this story for melodrama. Instead he uses the deterioration of the country, the hotel and the family to address themes of loss and betrayal. A Screaming Man is absorbing throughout, and Djaoro gives a magnificent performance as man whose every action is freighted with love, guilt and anger.