“The City From the Back of a Truck”

02/28/2010

Still from 'Abouna'

A Look at Chadian Cinema Today

Situated in a dry and austere land, The Republic of Chad is seemingly a point of convergence of North, West, and Central Africa. And, like many formerly colonized nations, it is also a confluence of battling political ideals, tradition and industrialization, decadent corruption and confronting poverty. Not having had a national cinema until very recently, Chadian filmmakers work with personal and collective modes of representation that try to deal with the many perspectives that exist in the country, ones all too often affected by violence, political upheaval and displacement. Characters from all walks of life work through a bereavement for equilibrium, guided by the future’s vague possibilities.

The director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s films often address the emotional and economic fallout of civil war. He also candidly presents the problems that arise from being a Chadian filmmaker. From his early short-subject work, including Goï-Goï (1995) (including a strong female lead in a struggle for self-sufficiency), which directly face issues at play in Chadian society, Haroun has broadened his thematic palette in his feature films, wherein themes of colonization and governmental abuse are the focus, seen casting a long shadow over the everyday lives and haunted memories of the characters.

Bye Bye Africa

Chad / 1999 / Arabic & French

Directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

With Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Garba Issa, Aïcha Yelena

Promotional Image from 'Bye Bye Africa'

Bye Bye Africa (1999)

The self-examining (although not purely autobiographical) first feature by Haroun, Bye Bye Africa illustrates perfectly the complex relationship between cinema, a medium that comes by way of Europe, and an African audience. This dynamic finds expression in an ideological breakdown that occurs when the exiled artist returns to Chad after many years away. Can cinema flourish in Africa, independent of Western narrative norms? The needs and orientation cannot be adequately addressed by what is arguably the West’s most salient art form. Many filmmakers try, but the medium itself remains foreign to the place, and there is almost no audience for it; the conventional feedback process between a director and the filmgoer does not apply. Bye Bye Africa expresses ambivalence towards this problem and towards Western art in general, and it does so poignantly, by condensing his feelings into a decidedly unflattering personal narrative.

Haroun’s film points to an uncrossable divide that separates the himself and the people that he really wants to reach. It follows the filmmaker, who lives in Paris with his French wife, and who returns home to the capital city of N’djamena, upon learning of the death of his mother. He takes his video camera with him and a plan to make a movie on his own terms, helped by his friends, with local funding. He finds out that, for cultural and economic reasons, the movies have fallen out of fashion in Chad, theaters in which he was once enchanted by European and African films now derelict and hollow. His father does not agree that films are useful to anyone, and implores Haroun to find a way to earn an honest living; one man whom he is filming in the street gets angry and attacks him. Not only is the use of cinema misunderstood, but also its separation from reality. Isabelle, a young actress, describes to him her ostracism at the hands of the community, after having played a character with AIDS in a film that he did in Chad. The people do not differentiate between the real woman and her film role.

The film has much in common with Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s Life on Earth (1998),  as it is a self-portrait done in the mirror of homecoming, wherein the artist has difficulty translating what he has become to the people with whom he grew up. What are ostensibly problems that he has with their lack of understanding are in fact problems that he has with himself and being a Westernized artist. He cannot bring his ideas and his vision back with him to Chad, the place that he wants to represent to the world. Interestingly, his very personal exploration of these issues shows more about the people and the consciousness of the place than would a sentimental narrative of exile. Bye Bye Africa is about abandonment, swathed in reminiscence and rediscovery.

A reconnection with N’djamena, it turns out, is marred by the self-serving attitude Haroun (the character, not the director) has towards the place. He wants to seduce Isabelle, but could never take her back with him to France. The essentializing, disingenuous qualities of his relationship with her speak volumes about that which he has with his home country. He tries to teach a young boy about how to be a filmmaker but, wrapped up in his own quest, he does so by offloading him on Serge, another struggling Chadian director trying to shoot a film. Haroun, in his hometown, is met mostly with puzzled indifference. Is the lack of interest in cinema a symptom of the poverty that has so drastically shaped the country since independence, or is it formed by a basic disconnect that keeps ordinary Africans away from the language and process of cinema? Haroun quite unashamedly explores his own complicity, as a filmmaker, in forming this partitioning rift.

Abouna

Chad / 2002 / Arabic & French

Directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

With Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa, Hamza Moctar Aguid, Zara Haroun

Still from 'Abouna'

Abouna (2002)

Throughout Abouna, Haroun utilizes the music of Ali Farka Touré, a Malian guitarist whose jagged, minimal and hypnotic style is perfectly evocative of the desert area in which the director was born, and where a good portion of the film takes place. A teenager named Tahir and his younger brother Amine wake up one morning in their middle-class home in N’djamena to find that their father has gone without warning, swept up in the flow of itinerant workers who migrate daily across the border into Cameroon in search of work. They begin a vain quest to find him, continually brought home by their long-suffering mother. Having seen their father’s resemblance in a movie, they break into the cinema hall after hours to peruse the reels of film, and are arrested. (The boys’ sadness is undeniably tied to film-watching and the act of viewing, which act both as palliatives that they use to deal with their loss of trajectory and as memento moris for the life they have known). The mother sends them away to a rural madrasah, where they will stand out as city boys and never coalesce with the other children. Tahir and Amine watch their home slowly disappearing behind them; on the street, the people who are moving forward appear to be standing still, the people who are standing still appear to be moving backwards. As a filmmaker, Haroun seems to return to this vantage often, perhaps feeling somewhat at home in its receding perspective.

When the father leaves the family, the boys are forced not only to become adults (their search for him requires that they assume a degree of self-sufficiency) but also to become a part of their nation, whose general temperament is marked by displacement. The people have been rattled by civil war, and like so many marbles on a table, their stability remains precarious, dependent on that of their homeland. But stability itself is as mutable as the political situation. For Tahir and Amine, adulthood comes with a certain realization of class consciousness, of the fragility of the care-free upbringing that they had. In reality there is no comfort, and there is no happiness. It all is an illusion that can vanish so abruptly – and this teetering act informs so much great postcolonial drama, from Armah’s The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born to Sembene’s Xala (1975) to Sissako’s masterpiece Bamako (2006). Abouna causes one to wonder about the boys’ future, and the story drops off before much can be divined. Will they grow up like their uncle, a man with a guitar and a scooter who considers himself an unappreciated artist, but who seems disconnected? Or like their father, who raised a family only to disappear? Orphaning is a common symbol applied the colonial condition, and with Abouna, Haroun delves into the many implications that lie beyond the metaphor.

Daresalam

Chad / 2000 / Arabic & French

Directed by Issa Serge Coelo

With Haikal Zakaria, Abdoulaye Ahmat, Gérard Essomba

Still from 'Daresalam'

Daresalam (2000)

Issa Serge Coelo’s Daresalam follows Djimi, a young man living in a rural village, who flees his home after his friend Koni murders a government official. He and Koni journey into the wilderness to join a guerilla group in their armed struggle against the army. The two men go through basic training together, and soon find themselves constantly on the move, in the field of battle. After fighting shoulder to shoulder, factioneering within the group finds the two men going separate ways, with Koni drawn to a couple of leaders who want to diverge from the old way of doing things and ultimately to seek collusion with the government. While Koni is an example of the politically mobile materialist, willing to make compromises in the interest of a collective goal, Djimi remains very much in the mode of idealistic fighter, safe within the doctrines that he has absorbed, but lacking the imagination to see what will become of them in a national arena. And in the end, he just wants a sewing machine with which to make a decent living once the fighting has stopped. To him, Koni’s deviations seem like the result of weakening resolve or at worst, steps on a path of self-elevation. Together the two men embody contradictory impulses within the struggle for a revolutionary cause, and they each move towards their own individual conclusion.

While most of Daresalam takes place among a rebel army, it really focuses on Djimi’s outward transformation, from being a young man leading a pastoral life, to a fighter and ideologue. But he becomes disillusioned with his friend’s change of attitude. When a war injury takes him out of the struggle, his priorities shift to self-sufficiency and settling down with his new wife. It seems that this all that he ever wanted. He ends up out of experience, listening to the fate of his comrades on the radio, which was such a lifeline during his days on the battlefield. As for life in the village before everything was turned upside down, the choice for the two friends seems an obvious one: live in poverty while being actively oppressed by the government, or live out your days in poverty as a rebel and fight for a common cause.

Daresalam presents life in a guerilla army in a most human and naturalistic way. Neither sensational nor preachy, it is the most devoutly proletarian film to come from Chad, and is more harsh and immediate than any of Haroun’s work. The characters Koni and Djimi disagree on and are ultimately a bit skeptical of the Marxist philosophy that pervades the camp. Mostly they feel for what is right for their people, and Koni, thinking in the big picture, feels for what he thinks is right for the nation. Their differing outlooks, the personal vs. the collective, take them in two different directions.

Daratt

Chad / 2006 / Arabic & French

Directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

With Ali Barkai, Youssouf Djaoro, Aziza Hisseine

Whereas Abouna drifts, in a somewhat bewildered state, through a series of events started by a single, catalyzing one, Haroun’s Daratt is a tightly wound and devastatingly succinct piece, made all the more compelling by its reticent characters trying to connect. The story begins with Atim, a young man in a provincial town, and his blind grandfather, learning that all war criminals from the time of the country’s political strife are being granted immunity from prosecution by the government. And so Atim is sent to the city to avenge the death of his father, killed many years ago during the civil war by Nassara, a man who will not be tried for his actions.

Still from 'Daratt'

Daratt (2006)

With no friends in N’djamena besides the petty criminal Moussa, Atim quickly ingratiates himself with the middle-aged Nassara, getting a job at the man’s bakery. The young and brooding protagonist says very little throughout the film, instead fixing other characters with a wrathful and impenetrable stare. No less stoic is the quietly terrifying Nassara who, having lost the use of his vocal cords due to an attempt on his life, speaks through an electronic voice box. He wears a scarf at all times and delivers his stern admonishments in a clicking, robotic monotone. It becomes apparent that Atim is ill-equipped as a vigilante, having only his pistol and little feeling for why he has set about on his task. He is like a soldier, not on a personal mission, but doing the bidding of his vengeful grandfather. A strange and extraordinary relationship develops between himself and Nassara, as the older man takes Atim under his wing. All the while Atim remains misanthropic and impossible to read. Nassara continually asks him to accompany him to mosque, but the young man refuses. The employer opens up to him, and he violently pulls away. But his trepidation overrides his dedication, as numerous opportunities to assassinate Nassara pass by, and he cannot bring himself to act. In one instance, Atim begins massaging the old man’s back and gets rougher until he is beating him with his hands, taking out his aggression on his grandfather and all the forces that compel and limit him. Nassara is confounded by the young man’s behavior, but this only seems to draw him in ever more, to heighten his paternal feelings. By being the father the young man never had he is, unknowingly, replacing the man he erased so long ago. Lost in a place on Earth that Haroun defines through severed filial relationships, either through economic disparity (as in Bye Bye Africa), migration (as in Abouna), or murder (in Daratt) the two men see in one another what they have longed for, brought together on a pretext of vengeance. In order for the circle of killer and victim to be completed, national identity being at stake, Atim must succeed, even if it means losing a second father.

Still from 'Daratt'

Daratt (2006)

And to add a greater complexity to the situation there is Nassara’s much younger wife, to whom Atim is immediately attracted, and with whom he flirts openly. She is, by extension, also a parent figure to him, and this stops any romance from growing. While the film mostly consists of two males not communicating, her tendency to empathy both mollifies and complicates their anger. The young man, in his ineptitude as a deceiver, allows himself to fall into a very genuine relationship with the old man and his wife. They cause him to forget, intermittently, why he has come to the city in the first place. But his grandfather and his father continue to push at the forefront of his thoughts. The inherited violence that he carries with him bubbles forth in unexpected and shocking ways, but his motives stay hidden from his surrogate parents. He sulks through the film as a virginal landmine. And then a strange thing in a succession of strange things happens: Nassara shows Atim a closet full of guns – take one, he says, for protection.

Daratt is the type of film that Bye Bye Africa depicts Haroun struggling to realize. It works on a level of showing the life of the city, in fine detail, while the atmosphere is fraught, almost torrid, with a tragic sense of mounting drama. It has its context and political inferences, but it is self-contained as well. The main character’s torturous dynamic with his antagonist is engrossing, shot through with confused emotion and unspoken betrayal. As a central figure he is artless and innocent, allowing himself to be taken in, first by Moussa and then by the baker and his wife. The journey unexpectedly humanizes his intended target, revealing the enemy’s sensitivity, desperation, and sorrowful longing. Daratt is a portrait of postcolonial ambivalence and notions of justice, as well as the difficulty in being saddled with the job of cleaning up after a tragedy when at a generation’s remove from it.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: