A Screaming Man is Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s third film about fathers, sons and conflict. Unlike the two earlier films, Abouna and Daratt, this new film features the war in Chad directly. Civil wars have been a feature of Chadian life since soon after independence. Since 1965 there have been only around 19 years of ‘peace’. Chad’s wars are connected in various ways with wars in Sudan and the Central African Republic. Since the third regional player in Chad’s affairs is Libya, Chad is in a very unfortunate position in the ‘dead centre’ of Africa. France held Chad as a colony for just 40 years between 1920 and independence in 1960. 1,000 French troops are still in the country, supporting the present regime in its fight against ‘rebel insurgents’.
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is a Chadian by birth who now lives in Bordeaux but visits Chad regularly to make films. He has an arrangement from his previous film Daratt which provides a Chadian producer on the ground and a Belgian partner for the French company he worked with this time. With a host of other soft money sources the production rustled up €2 million for a six week shoot. The result is a visually stunning ‘Scope production. It has a very simple story which is powerfully told (and performed). It is, however, accessible on many different levels, some more difficult than others and aspects of the film’s narrative still puzzle me.
Outline (some Spoilers – it’s a simple narrative)
Adam is a man in his late 50s still working as a swimming pool attendant in a western hotel in N’Djamena, the Chadian capital. His friends call him ‘Champ’ since he once won a Central African swimming championship. Adam’s 20 year-old son Abdel works with him and enjoys teaching swimming to children. Adam’s only immediate problem is that the local ‘chief’ of his community is pressurising him into making his contribution to the funding needed by the regime in power to fight the rebels threatening the city. Adam has no money, but he knows that the chief has already been forced to send his own son to fight in the civil war. But then Adam is called in to the hotel office to learn that the Chinese owners of the privatised hotel have decided that his son can do the swimming pool job and that he has been demoted to attendant on the hotel gate, letting cars in and out. Adam is devastated. The pressure from the chief is still there and we aren’t too surprised when the Army come to take Abdel, telling him that he is drafted. By this stage Adam is barely speaking to anyone. What will he do when Abdel’s pregnant girlfriend turns up?
The film’s title is taken from a poem by Aimé Césaire, born in the French colony of Martinique and one of the founders of the Négritude movement – the promotion of Black culture through the intellectual and cultural life of Francophone Africa and the Caribbean. The supporters of Négritude see it as an anti-racist and anti-colonialist movement validating African identity, but the great Senegalese writer and filmmaker Sembène Ousmane was opposed to it, particularly as advanced by the Senegal President at the time of independence, Léopold Senghor. Sembène saw the movement as backward-looking and subservient to Francophone culture in Africa. It’s significant, I think, that whereas Sembène, once able to make his films without a controlling French producer, always sought to make his films in local Senegalese languages, Haroun’s characters generally speak French and Arabic – the ‘official languages’ of Chad. Apart from anything else, this makes class positions difficult to determine. Adam is broke but he runs a motorbike and sidecar and has a house and yard. Is he working class or is he privileged in this society?
The poem by Césaire has the title ‘Return to My Native Land’. I can’t find the whole poem online but the relevant section includes the lines:
“And above all, my body as well as my soul, beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of miseries is not a proscenium, a man screaming is not a dancing bear . . .”
The meaning of this seems reasonably clear. We are being urged not to be spectators of misery but to become involved. At least that’s how I read it – other interpretations, especially by those who know the poem, welcomed. I seem to remember reading that Haroun has said that Adam is ‘screaming’ at God for not intervening in the tragedy that is befalling his family.
I’ve read several reviews that suggest that Adam ‘sold’ his son to the Army to get his job back. I don’t buy that. Adam is devastated when he loses his job and devastated further when he realises that he will lose his son. As often happens, I think it depends on who you identify with in these stories. If you are older you are bound to feel more keenly for Adam. As the gatekeeper in a uniform far too small for him, Adam is reminiscent of the figure played by Emil Jannings in Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Germany 1924). 55 in many poorer African states is an age beyond the average life expectancy. The African world is for the young (which makes their sacrifice in war even more terrible). Haroun shows this in many ways but perhaps most powerfully simply by taking away the power of speech from the father.
One other aspect of the narrative intrigues me. Adam is called ‘Champ’ by his colleagues. How ironic is this? In 2000 at the Sydney Olympics a swimmer from Equatorial Africa called Eric Moussambani was nicknamed ‘Eric the Eel’ by the tabloids in the UK and elsewhere because he entered on a wild card and swam the slowest 100m race anyone at the games had seen in an international event. Of course there were accusations of racism towards the journalists/sub-editors who puffed the story – but on the other hand something similar had happened with the British ski jumper Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards at Calgary in 1988. I have no knowledge of the Central African Swimming Championships but I suspect that there are few pools for swimmers to train in and that those that do exist are probably in luxury hotels. So, I’m still not sure what the ‘Champ’ nickname means except as an ironic reference to Adam’s declining status. I won’t spoil the film’s ending but it does have a connection to the water. (Chad, I’ve learned from researching this also has a large lake in what is a country with significant areas of desert.)
I enjoyed the film very much and I’m glad that Haroun is able to make films that get an international release (and in this case a Cannes Prize in 2010). He and Abderrahmane Sissako are the only African directors who have regularly had their films shown in the UK in the last few years. I think that a couple more titles by directors from elsewhere in Africa are going to appear soon. Much as I admire Haroun’s artistry, I hope other titles also refer to contemporary African popular culture.
If I have one criticism of Haroun it is that the women in this film are almost completely marginalised. That’s a shame, especially as the welfare of pregnant women in Chad and the high levels of mortality of both babies and mothers during childbirth is something that has been recognised in Europe. So if you go and see this film (and you should), how about also giving a donation to ‘Safer Birth in Chad‘?
Here’s a subtitled trailer to whet your appetite (the beautiful song is by Djénéba Koné the young woman who plays Abdel’s girlfriend):
This is a simple tale which nevertheless seems to say a great deal. It takes place in Chad where a ‘Justice and Retribution’ Commission is reporting on war crimes after a long civil war. Atim (a name that means orphan) is summoned by his grandfather and instructed to find the man who killed his father and execute him. Atim sets off for the city and finds the man (Nassara), now a baker with a young wife and suffering from various wounds and ailments. Atim is hired by Nassara to work in his bakery, despite his aggressive stance. Eventually, Nassara comes to rely on Atim – will the execution take place?
I found the film engrossing despite its slow pace. It’s a while since I’ve seen any new African films (I actually have the previous film by this director on DVD, but I’ve not watched it – I will now) and I’m struggling to place it in relation to what I know. There is little here of either the magical realism of a Souleymane Cissé, the politics of a Sembène Ousmane or the postmodernism of a Djibril Diop Mambéty. Perhaps the films of Idrissa Ouedraogo are more relevant. Visually, this film is very spare with long shots and MLS of dusty streets and the bakery with occasional MCUs and CUs. The nighttime scenes are distinctive with Atim walking into pools of light and then back into total blackness.
Atim is at once a ‘country boy’ in the city and a modern ‘rebel’ figure. When he jokes on his mobile ‘phone and suddenly sprays his armpits with deodorant, we are reminded that this is a young man in a young man’s world. He speaks only rarely and it is a sign of the desperate loneliness that Nassara feels, that he quickly grows to love Atim despite constant rebuffs. I’m strongly tempted to see the film as in some way metaphorical in that Atim represents a future in which the young men of Chad can escape from the ravages of the past and come to terms with reconciliation without losing everything of tradition. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic – I hope not. Definitely worth seeing.