Fatherlands: On Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Africa and an Evolving Political Cinema

By Jerry White

daratt-mahamat-saleh-haroun.jpgDaratt, 2006

I first met the Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun at the 2000 Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, when he was on the international circuit with his first major film, Bye-Bye Africa. I thought it was a lovely work, but couldn’t quite find the words to describe its combination of meta-cinematic playfulness and engagement with daily life in a poor, marginal country. He mentioned to me that a French critic had described him as “the most Iranian of African filmmakers.” That seemed to me a perfect description of Bye-Bye Africa, and as his career has developed it has lost none of its relevance.

At first, I thought that this assessment was most true of Bye-Bye Africa. This seems like a slight little film, a seemingly autobiographical story about a filmmaker living in Paris (Haroun playing himself) who returns to his childhood home of N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, when his mother dies. This sense of fiction-but-not quite strongly recalls Kiarostami’s Life and Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees, two fictional films that had at their centres filmmaker characters who were clearly supposed to be Kiarostami himself (although in this case both were played by different actors, neither one himself). But unlike the more existential films by the Iranian, Bye-Bye Africa is an investigation (in this case) of the state of African cinema and, almost as importantly, African cinema-going. Haroun finds, essentially, that there is no Chadian cinema, and that most of the few movie theatres in N’Djamena have either closed down or converted to video. Indeed, Bye-Bye Africa is itself shot on video, and while part of this is clearly about creating a spontaneous, hand-held aesthetic, this also means that the film’s melancholy analysis of the fate of cinema is literally in the fabric of the work.

And clearly, the film’s melancholy is about more than strictly cinema. There’s a distinct sense throughout the film that African culture is in decay, and that a shared experience, a real sense of community, is basically a distant memory. This sense is driven in part by the focus on parental loss (the death of the mother will, in later Haroun films, be replaced by the death of the father, which becomes a recurring concern), but also by the run-down grubbiness both of the aesthetic (it’s not shot on particularly high-end video, even by 1999 standards) and the surrounding town. The late 1990s marked the beginning of an insurgency in Chad; this itself had been preceded by a civil war (in the late ’70s and early ’80s), Libyan invasions and Libyan-supported coups. Despite the curiosity and general good-naturedness of Haroun’s “character,” the film radiates the exhaustion that this sort of experience inevitably leads to (and that sense of exhaustion is front-and-centre in his latest film, Daratt). The history of the local film culture may be as front-and-centre as it is in a film like Moshen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema! Or Once Upon a Time....Cinema, but the analysis of that film culture’s relation to the larger culture is quite different.

daratt-mahamat-saleh-haroun-2.jpgDaratt, 2006

Indeed, Haroun’s filmmaking overall seems closer to the Makhmalbaf of Kandahar; we see the emergence of this sensibility with Haroun’s 2002 film Abouna. This is a story of two brothers, Tahir and Amine, who go on a sort of quest to find their father, who disappears without warning. There is, again, a meta-cinematic element in the film, one that is equal to the best of Iranian cinema’s meta-cinematic tradition (and Makhmalbaf’s work again provides the most convenient example there). During one scene, the boys watch a movie which they think their dad is starring in. Amine is so sure it’s him that he says “dad, it’s me, Amine.” The character on the screen they are watching faces the camera and says “hello, kids,” but their spirits fall when he turns out to be talking to the small kids in the movie.

There are Iranian – which is really to say early-Kiarostamian – visual rhythms to the film as well. Early on, the boys decide to set out to look for their dad in a sequence that is bookended by a pair of exquisite long takes; the first is a slow tracking shot along a bleak, garbage-strewn urban field (there is some sort of unexplained smoke than follows them as they walk) and the second is a shot that gradually pans to follow them as they walk along an empty soccer field and jump up and play on its net-less goalposts. In-between is a sequence at the Chad-Cameroon border (which they seem to cross), which feels bustling but also dusty and minimalist. This emphasis on the possibilities of Africa’s bleakness – a possibility here evoked by the patience of the long takes, the fluidity of the camera movements – follows on neatly from the melancholy playfulness of Bye-Bye Africa. But Abouna also looks forward in Haroun’s career, specifically via the motif of the lost father. That motif reaches national allegorical proportions in Daratt.

Commissioned as part of a programme called New Crowned Hope – a festival that was part of Mozart’s 250th birthday celebrations [1] – the film has a sparseness and careful composition that does approach a semi-musical abstraction. But really Daratt is about the despair that rocks war-torn Africa, and the degree to which that despair can only be overcome by sacrifice – sacrifice of the right to vengeance being the most central to the narrative. That narrative centres on Atim (played by Ali Bacha Barkaï), a young man whose father was killed in Chad’s civil war and who was raised by his grandfather. When he reaches manhood he sets out to find the man who killed his father and kill him in return; when he finds the man (Nassara, played by Youssouf Djaroro), though, and integrates himself into his life by way of preparing to pounce, he finds himself developing a very complicated relationship with him.

Indeed, the interpersonal dynamics here are complex in a way that really means that they can only be about allegory. Although he must now speak with a box because of severed vocal cords, Nassara has re-integrated into Chadian society and is now a prosperous baker. He takes the young Atim under his wing as an apprentice. He eventually offers to adopt him. Although he’s gruff, he’s very clearly set up by the film to be someone who has tried to redeem his violent past and it now behaving in ways that are quite generous. But Haroun steers away from making this a sentimental forgiveness story; Atim never really seems to warm to Nassara, never evinces the connection that forgiveness is supposed to bring. The reconciliation here is a sacrifice. Atim has to give up his murderous anger, even though it’s not at all clear that there will be anything to fill that void.

daratt-mahamat-saleh-haroun-3.jpgDaratt, 2006

This emptiness, as in Bye-Bye Africa and Abouna, is given plenty of visual life as well. The desert vistas seem more unforgiving than in Abouna, and the memories of deprivation more intense and angry than in Bye-Bye Africa. But the hints of connection through the dustiness remain, if only because these images are so meticulously laid out, so suggestive of harmony; no wonder the film was commissioned to celebrate the operatic imagination. Indeed, in an article about the “New Crowned Hope” films for the Canadian magazine Cinema Scope, Christoph Huber writes that “Daratt again suggests Haroun’s filmmaking as an alternative to the increasingly authoritarian stance Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema has taken since his unforced heyday.” [2] I assume that Huber is referring to the shift from the Kiarostami of Through the Olive Trees to the Kiarostami of Ten, although I’m not totally sure. At any rate, the Kiarostami connection is apt. The landscape here is used as poignantly as it was in Life and Nothing More or The Wind Will Carry Us, and the sense of openness to the world struggling to crack through existential despair is as present in Darrat as it is in Taste of Cherry.

But like Abouna, this is a spare story of a long quest peppered with fairly concrete political analysis; because of that, we’re really in Makhmalbaf country here. Some of Makhmalbaf is, of course, formally close to Kiarostami; that seems especially true of Kandahar, with its flowing desert landscapes and its very slow pace. But the crucial difference between Kandahar and Kiarostami is also the difference between Haroun and Kiarostami: politics. The way that these more political films evoke their crises, though, has none of the aplomb of the insurrectionary Third Cinema, nor any of the satirical bite of Ousmane Semebene. Rather, the despair that we see on the faces of Makhmalbaf’s Tabib Sahid (the disillusioned American jihadi, played by real-life fugitive Hassan Tantani, also known as David Belfield) is, like that on the face of Haroun’s Atim, a despair that speaks volumes about the ways that unseen powers have destroyed lives as they sought to remake landscapes.

This is a quieter, despairing political cinema, but one that is no less effective for its attempts to make clear – both visually and via performance – the existential crises of individuals. That such a biting political critique has come from a filmmaker whose body of work – so formally rich and gentle, so visually deliberate and comfortably self-aware – is enough to give one faith in the ability of political cinema not only to survive but to renew itself. Daratt is not only an example of Haroun’s own work evolving into a sharp and newly critical mode of political filmmaking, but of political filmmaking itself evolving into a form that draws on the richest strains of contemporary world cinema.


[1] The New Crowned Hope Festival was run by Peter Sellars, the great lunatic-eccentric-genius of the opera world and himself a passionate and incredibly knowledgeable cinephile (he was guest director of the Telluride Film Festival in 2000). He asked Keith Griffiths and Simon Field to act as commissioning editors for the festival, and they ended up working with seven filmmakers: Paz Encina (Paraguay, Paraguayan Hammock), Garin Nughroho (Indonesia, Opera Jawa), Bahman Gobadi (Iran, Half Moon), Apichatapong Weerasethakul (Thailand, Syndromes and a Century), Tsai Ming-liang (Taiwan, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone), Teboho Mahlatsi (South Africa), and Haroun. In London, there will be a complete presentation at the Barbican Centre in July
[2] Christoph Huber, Operas for the 21st Century, Cinema Scope 28 (Fall 2006)

Daratt is released imminently in the UK by Soda Pictures.

Jerry White writes and teaches in Canada. He edited The Cinema of Canada as part of the 24 Frames Series published by Wallflower Press