My short visit to LFF2017 ended with a journey across town to the Hackney Picturehouse. I first visited this cinema a couple of years ago and again we were in the mammoth Screen 1. I was disappointed by the size of the audience since this was the new film by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, one of just two major international auteurs whose films from francophone Central and West Africa have kept alive the strong reputation of the region over the last ten years. (The other one is Abderrahmane Sissako whose film Timbuktu made a big splash in the UK in 2015.)
Haroun has previously set his films in his native Chad. I missed his 2013 film Gris-Gris which showed at LFF but I don’t think was released in the UK. Gris-Gris and his earlier features Abouna (2002), Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010) were all set in the Central African country. Prior to A Season in France, he directed a documentary, Hissein Habré, a Chadian Tragedy (2016) about the dictatorship and its fall-out in his own country that led to his exile. His new film, as the title suggests, is set in France – though I’m not sure yet what the reference to a ‘season’ means, unless it’s a satirical reference to a hunting season? Haroun himself is based in France so he knows the issues likely to be faced by asylum seekers such as Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney).
Abbas is an asylum seeker in France after fleeing his home Bangui (capital of the Central African Republic). He has with him his two children, Asma and Yacine, but his wife was killed during the family’s flight from CAR. Abbas was a French teacher in CAR and so was Etienne (a philosophy teacher), who I think might be Abbas’ brother-in-law, another who is seeking asylum. The children call Etienne ‘uncle’ but I did wonder if this was just the common usage of ‘uncle’ for any older male known to the family. Abbas and his children move constantly from one rented or borrowed room to another. Etienne has even less to call home and survives as a doorman/security guard outside a pharmacy. Abbas works on a stall in the market and develops a relationship with Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire) who has a floristry business linked to the market stall and whose family is Polish from a different wave of migration. The strain of the asylum application process is very heavy. Haroun presents the waiting room and the security guards at the office dealing with asylum seekers – but we never see the bureaucrats. Instead the asylum seekers receive official letters. If the strain is too great, the asylum seekers can all too easily ‘fail’ in their attempt to achieve permanent status.
In several ways, A Season in France resembles I, Daniel Blake and other Loachian dramas in which individuals without money or status have to deal with a state bureaucracy. (But it also includes dream sequences, which I can’t recall in a Loach film.) I don’t want to give out spoilers, so I’ll just suggest that the film presents a stark moment of tragedy and a gradual loss of hope but has an ‘open’ ending that in a couple of ways is heart-breaking. This is a tough film and an angry film told in a straightforward way. It needs to be seen and I hope it moves audiences to think again about how Europe treats asylum seekers. In some ways, especially to do with the involvement of the French citizen Carole, the film is similar to Welcome (France 2009). French citizens face severe punishment for helping ‘illegal’ migrants. Like Welcome with Vincent Lindon, A Season in France has the presence of Sandrine Bonnaire, one of the best actors in France. I hope this will attract audiences in Europe. Eriq Ebouaney is very good as Abbas and I was interested to see his very long list of acting roles in French and international cinema. I had thought of Claire Denis’ 35 rhums (2009) because of the presentation of an African family in the grey suburbs of Paris, and especially the railway bridges and rail journeys. Ebouaney has a small part in that film and several others I’ve seen. It’s good to see him now in a lead role. A Season in France opens in France in February 2018. Somebody please pick it up for the UK.
You can download a Press Pack with excellent interviews and background from: http://mk2films.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2016/08/pressbook-a-season-in-france.pdf
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.