x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Visible Africa: Cannes winner Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

The Chadian director of A Screaming Man says African directors 'need to make more ambitious films' if they want to be in Cannes.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

A Screaming Man was the first film from sub-Saharan Africa to be selected in competition at Cannes for 13 years. It won the jury prize, just rewards for the director, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who, since the death of Ousmane Sembène, has taken on the mantle of the continent's most respected filmmaker.

His award-winning film tells the story of Adam, an ex-swimming champion who now works as a pool attendant in a nice hotel in Chad. His assistant is his son and life seems to be going remarkably well until the new Chinese owners go on a cost-cutting exercise and reassign him to work on the gates controlling the flow of traffic. Bored doing a job he hates, he has little time to vent his frustration before rebel forces arrive in town and mark the start of violence and civil war.

It is here that the 49-year-old steers clear of stereotypes: rather than showing men with guns, he instead concentrates his tale on the relationship between a father and his son. As such the movie follows in the footsteps of Abouna: Our Father, which first brought the director international recognition in 2002, and his excellent 2006 effort Daratt: Dry Season. He says that the story had to avoid images of war. "There is an American director called Steven Spielberg who directed Saving Private Ryan and when one sees that film, and there is no way for me to do the same thing, it's just better to find another solution for representing war."

The civil war that has been raging on and off for 40 years in Chad has particular resonance with the director, who was himself hit by a stray bullet when he was 17 years old after a fight broke out in the street. Unsurprisingly, after this close encounter with death the director chose to move to France, where his love of cinema developed. "Cinema was my life when I was young," he says. "I went to the cinema when I was eight and saw a Bollywood film. There was a big story with a pretty girl who smiled at the camera. There were 1,000 people in the cinema but I always believed she smiled only at me. The next day I felt deceived because I didn't want to play with other kids my age; I always wanted to just take a camera and make stories."

The startling image at the beginning of A Screaming Man of European tourists sipping drinks by the pool in the days before disaster strikes, almost seems as though it's been taken from a Michel Houellebecq novel. It's not like anything we've seen from an African film before. "It's true that when you see work set in Africa there are a lot of clichés," explains Haroun. "I'm a cinema director who thinks that I must not fall into cliché. The audience expects clichés and so when the film starts and the first image is by the pool, people think it's not possible, as this is not Africa. It's a surprise already. I try to do things a bit different, but at the same time remain authentic and have a story that is true and believable."

Haroun tried to add to the realism by using real hotel employees to play the hotel staff, asking actual tourists to play themselves walking by the pool, and even the soldiers in the film are picked from army ranks. The director wants to show his country as it really is rather than as how others perceive it to be. The action is tinged with sadness as Haroun shows how the civil war mentality has become the norm in Chad. He is particularly sad about the lack of opportunities being afforded to the young.

"It's true that it's very sad for the young generation. In 2006, when I was in the process of making Daratt, the actor who was playing the main child, Ali Barkai, was going to be celebrating his 18th birthday and we finished shooting on the 12th so we were preparing a party for him the next day. That morning at 5am the rebels arrived and there were 300 to 400 deaths during the day. So on that day he became an adult, Chad gave him war as a birthday present; that is why I'm sad about the young generation," he says. What's also intriguing is that Haroun doesn't attempt to explain any of the politics of Chad on-screen. There is little context about what the government and the rebels represent.

"The film recounts the point of view of this character and he hasn't got a position with the rebels or the government; to his life the two forces are abstract and so it would not matter if he was for the rebels or the government as this would not stop the war. For the character what is important is to have happiness with his wife and family." The relationship between father and son is something that he finds particularly touching. "Between the father and the son is the transportation of memory, genes, and culture. It's particularly important here because men conduct the war in Chad. The unrest in Chad has lasted 40 years and it's the father who has transmitted the culture of war to his son, because otherwise there is no reason for the son to get involved."

This is the strength of Haroun. Even the most mundane and everyday scene has a deeper political and social significance once the surface has been scratched. What seems simple is often the representation of something far more complicated. Take the depiction of the Chinese in the movie. "The world has changed," Haroun says. "Adam doesn't understand. He says, 'It's not me but the world that has changed', and he cannot understand what is happening. Before he was a champion and respected and had a certain stature, but there everything disappears, the earth turns, the hotel is sold and he doesn't understand what is going on any more."

Haroun claims that he, too, is a screaming man. "Yes I'm a screaming man, but in silence. I have a feeling of anger inside of me about the social situation in Africa, for the economic state of Africa, about the youth who want to leave the continent. I want to scream because it's unjust and so I'm a man who screams." African filmmakers are not blessed with the riches afforded to big Hollywood directors such as Spielberg; even so, a 13-year gap between movies at Cannes seems far too long. The director says that he hopes his inclusion this year will break down the barrier, yet he adds that it's African filmmakers and not the programmers at Cannes who need to change.

"African directors need to make more ambitious films if they want to be in Cannes. By being at Cannes you can speak to the entire world. We need to break the invisibility of Africa and work more and more to create an African presence so that we are not always on the periphery." If Haroun continues to scream loud enough, the world is sure to hear him.