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Monday, April 9, 2018

“Their own images of Africa": The cinema of Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, left, in Bye Bye Africa (1999).

By Ashley Clark

Although the cinema of Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is far less well-known in America than it should be, the Chadian filmmaker is one of the major contemporary filmmakers of the past two decades, crafting a remarkable body of absorbing, experimental, and politically resonant work. In the career-spanning series Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Modern Griot—which opens with his latest film, the haunting, immigration-themed drama A Season in France (2017)—BAMcinématek is proud to present the first major New York retrospective of this trailblazing artist’s work in over 10 years April 20—25.

The enduring power of Haroun’s cinema is rooted in his own experiences. Having left his home country as a young man in the 1980s as it was being rent asunder by a brutal civil war, Haroun made his way to France, working as a journalist in Bordeaux before settling in Paris with only one thing in his pocket—the address of a Parisian film school. As Haroun explained to The Guardian, “My story sounds like fiction, but it's true. It was like I was a homeless person, and this school is where I belonged.” Haroun’s affinity with refugee life clearly informs A Season in France, screening for the first time in New York at BAM. This timely and understated film stars the brilliant Eriq Abouney as Abbas, a high-school teacher and father-of-two from the Central African Republic who flees his war-torn country for France, where he falls in love with a French woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) who offers a roof for him and his family.

Youssouf Djaoro in Screaming Man (2010). Credit: Photofest
The tenderness and insight which characterize A Season in France are plainly apparent in the earliest film in the program—1995’s Sotigui Kouyaté: a Modern Griot, from which BAMcinématek’s retrospective borrows its title. Running at just under an hour but dense with joy and texture, it is a documentary study of the eponymous—and now sadly late—Malian actor and musician, who became a favorite of, and frequent collaborator with, the legendary theater and film director Peter Brook. When casting The Mahabharata, Brook saw footage of Kouyaté and remarked: “I saw one shot of a tree and a man as tall and slender as this tree, with an extraordinary presence and quality.”

If Haroun’s portrait of Kouyaté established him as an expert observer and interlocutor, 1999’s remarkable docudrama Bye Bye Africa marked him out as an experimental filmmaking force to be reckoned with. It stars Haroun as a thinly-veiled version of himself: a Chadian film director now exiled in France. When, after many years, he heads home for the death of his mother, he also discovers the faltering state of the Chadian film industry due to the shuttering of cinemas and the proliferation of video rooms. Speaking of his motivation for the film, and pointing to the wider impact of his output, Haroun told journalist David Walsh, “The present dilemma is that a lot of African countries don't have the money to produce movies, so in the French-speaking countries every film is produced with money coming from France. And when somebody gives you money, you know, he or she is expecting something in return. He or she has an idea, perhaps a fantasy of Africa. African filmmakers want or need their own images of Africa.”

Abouna (2002). Credit: Photofest

Haroun’s critical, carefully-rendered images of Africa manifested in a subsequent string of stunning Chad-set dramas often infused with hints of Shakespearean tragedy, and threaded together by themes of fate, masculinity in peril, and economic precarity. Abouna (2002) is a deceptively simple coming-of-age fable which follows two brothers finding their way in the world after their parents abandon them. The quietly intense parable Dry Season (2006), set in the wake of Chad’s long civil war, again centers on compromised youth, unraveling the story of a teenage boy who sets out to avenge his father’s murder. Arguably Haroun’s best-known film is the obvious modern classic A Screaming Man (2010)—a father-son tale of immense and galling power, and the winner of that year’s Cannes Jury Prize—it features one of the greatest ever closing shots. In 2013 Haroun played in Palme d’Or competition at Cannes with the unclassifiable, unpredictable Grigris, which was the first film to be funded by the Chadian government. The film features a beguiling performance from non-actor Souleymane Démé as a dancer and photographer’s assistant who becomes inveigled in a petrol-smuggling plot.

In 2016, Haroun returned to documentary with the wrenching Hissen Habre: A Chadian Tragedy, which sheds light on one of the darkest corners of Chadian history—the brutal reign of the eponymous dictator infamous for unleashing horrific violence and human rights abuses upon a generation, before being jailed for life in 2016. A year later, Haroun was appointed Minister of Culture, Art and Tourism by Chadian president, Idriss Deby, yet was sacked in February this year, with no official reason given. In an interview with Jeune Afrique magazine shortly before the decision was taken, Haroun said, "I did not become a minister to wash away Chad's memory.” For Haroun and for his cinema, then, the personal and political are indivisible, and his stark, unadorned portraits of Chad are laid out for the world to see. Don't miss this rare chance to take them in at BAM Rose Cinemas, on the big screen, where they should be experienced.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Modern Griot comes to BAM Apr 20—25.

Ashley Clark is Senior Programmer, BAMcinématek.

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