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CinemAfrica 3: The Last Laugh in N’Djamena




By Daniel Lindvall.

A Screaming Man, written and directed by Chadian Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, was selected as best feature film at CinemaAfrica, Stockholm’s annual African film festival, in 2011, after having won the Jury Prize in Cannes the previous year.

Adam is pool attendant at a luxury hotel in N’Djamena, capital of Chad. He’s approaching sixty but keeps fit and goes about his work with great professional pride. Always dressed in immaculate whites, he carries himself confidently, back straight, head held high. In his youth he was an elite swimmer and his colleagues and friends still refer to him as ‘Champion’ with a touch of amicable reverence. His grown-up son, Abdel, works at his side. They spend their days in a seemingly blissful oasis, with only the voice of the newsreader on Adam’s radio occasionally reminding us of the ongoing civil war that draws nearer every day.

But it is not war that first disrupts the life of Adam, at least not war of the armed variety. The hotel has been privatised, sold out to Chinese owners. Many older employees are let go. Adam gets to stay but is demoted to doorman whilst his son takes over the pool.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (born 1961) fled civil war as a young man, eventually ending up in France where he studied cinema and journalism. In 1999 he returned to Chad to direct the nation’s first feature film, Bye Bye Africa. Since then he has been working regularly in both countries, making films and television. A Screaming Man is the third film he’s written and directed in the 2000s – following Abouna (2002) and Daratt (2006) – that focuses on the disruptive consequences of civil war on Chadian families and, in particular, on the relationship between fathers and sons.

In the course of one day, Adam loses the entire world he has built his life around. His old friends at the hotel are kicked out, including the former doorman. His self-esteem is torn to pieces as he is forced to don the much too small uniform of his predecessor with its ridiculously short trousers. Those who know some film history will see a reference to the German silent classic The Last Laugh (1924), where the main character starts out as a doorman and instead loses his gaudy uniform as he’s demoted to toilet attendant. It is not the nature of the job as such that is so devastating, nor even the silly uniform. It is the brutal reminder that, as a worker in capitalism, you are a replaceable commodity, not an irreplaceable individual.

Adam, clearly a loving, almost doting father, does the unthinkable. Using a corrupt contact in the state apparatus he gets his son drafted for war service. The next day he’s back at his old work. But nothing, obviously, is as it used to be.

Haroun tells his story in long, slow takes, with every image given the time to sink deeply into our consciousness. Dialog is sparse, but every sentence is chosen with such care that not a single word seems to be missing from the film. And, despite the slow unfolding of the story, the film never drags, never tries one’s patience. Haroun cleverly uses the scorching white sunlight (often filtered through windows or in sharp contrast to dark shadows) in order to create a world of seductively clean and clear pastel colours that induces an inner calm in the spectator and thereby also the patience to take in the story. And, what’s more, he manages to do this without ever descending to the presentation of ‘aestheticized’ suffering for our pleasurable consumption, thereby heeding the warning implied by the title of the film, a quote (slightly altered in the English translation) from a poem by the Surrealist and anti-colonialist activist Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), a son of another former French colony, Martinique. ‘Beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator’, writes Césaire, ‘for life is not a spectacle, a sea of miseries is not a proscenium, a man screaming is not a dancing bear.’

‘Our problem is that we put our destiny in God’s hands’, says one of Adam’s colleagues, a graying Congolese cook with a weak heart, moments after he’s been fired. Passivity and fatalism are not attitudes condoned by Haroun. In an interesting interview made at the time of Bye Bye Africa, Haroun speaks eloquently about the politics of cinema, the need for African self-representation and the political economy of filmmaking in the post-colonial era:

Being a filmmaker you’re not living in a dream world, you’re in reality, and the reality of Chad is bad politically, socially. You cannot say, “No, I am an artist, this is not my problem.” I have a duty to struggle in a political way, and that is dangerous, but the solution is to say to people, if I die, that it’s for history, it’s for something, you have to follow me.’

That Haroun envisages death as a possible outcome of political struggle through cinema is hardly surprising given the situation in a country where a corrupt regime clings on to power with the help of the former colonial power, whilst the money flowing in from oil sales since 2003, minus generous deductions for ExxonMobil’s profits (to the chagrin of the French), are increasingly siphoned off for purchasing arms rather than used for national development.

Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.

‘CinemAfrica 1: Viva Riva! and The Last Flight of the Flamingo’

‘CinemAfrica 2: Outside the Law’

 

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