Sunday, January 20, 2008

54. Chadean filmmaker Mahamet-Saleh Haroun's "Daratt (Dry Season)" (2006): Beyond the tooth for a tooth, eye for an eye equation

There are a handful of films from Africa that can leap out like a big cat from the celluloid jungle and make the viewer think.

A recent example is Daratt (Dry Season), a movie from Chad, a Central African country that was initially economically weakened by the French colonial rule and later, after gaining independence, slumped into a 40-year-old civil war. The neighboring Darfur crisis and the resulting spillover of refugees have not ameliorated the political and economic situation of this landlocked country. Imagine living in a country that is dusty and hot with the Sahara desert to its north. Imagine living in a country where two generations of its population have not encountered peace or progress but live under the constant shadow of fear and corruption. If you can empathize with the unusually inhospitable situation, you will realize the title of the film is not merely a reflection of the hot, dusty climate, but a metaphor to describe life in Chad today.

This film is a powerful mix of metaphors and fables. The atmosphere captured in the film is real. People still get their news on the radio—not on TV or by reading newspapers. People still eat freshly baked sticks of French bread. People still carry guns that often can compare with the best anywhere in the world, quite in contrast to what else is available. The younger generation includes street-smart crooks and quiet, hardworking young men yearning for normal family bonds and affection that the civil war did not allow to grow. When the young man, a fascinating study of conrolled aggression, is asked by a baker what he wants, he answers laconically—“Not charity.” Today, what Chad requires most is not charity as well, but honest, hard work that will build the nation.

What is unreal in the film? Corruption that eats into the soul of Chad is never glimpsed save for petty thieves selling fluorescent lights stolen from semi-dark streets in the night. What the viewer sees is a baker baking fresh bread and distributing it free to young hungry boys (the entire film suggests that young girls are an endangered species!). Now why would a person do this? Is the baker so rich that charity has become his vocation? It is possible that any scene of money changing hands for the baker’s bread got lopped off on the editing floor because another baker is later shown providing aggressive competition. Terror is never shown on screen save for slippers left behind by crowds that apparently fled in terror.

What are the metaphors in the film? A “blind” grandfather seeks revenge after a radio broadcast proclaims amnesty for the perpetrators of the horrors. The blind man hands a gun to his grandson, now an orphan called Atim (metaphorically meaning an orphan) to avenge the death of his parents by killing a certain individual in a far away city. This perpetrator of crimes, now a symbol of reconciliation, hard work and progress has lost his “voice” and can only speak with artificial aids. Yet he is the one with a kind heart, wanting to adopt a hardworking son, and keeps his armory of weapons well hidden.

The “good” men who seek revenge are blind. The “bad” men who seek reconciliation, normalcy and family life can’t speak (literally and metaphorically). And both men are devout Muslims. That’s Chad today!

The final outcome of the film is easily played out for the viewer because of these physical constraints of the two men. The outcome is easily played out as social mores are not tampered with—the grandfather’s command is seemingly obeyed. The “father’s” love for the “son” is acknowledged.

It would be too simplistic to draw parallels between Daratt and Argentine/Chilean Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the maiden, later adapted for the screen by American novelist Rafael Yglesias for Polish director Roman Polanski. Yglesais' and Polanski's ambiguous final scene in their film Death and the Maiden, where principal players exchange meaningful glances, is a delight.

In total contrast, Dry Season’s final scene is not of individuals but of the dry environment, as the camera zooms out. The viewer is nudged by the director to see the larger picture of the film, not the bare story line. What Polanski and Yglesias did in an American/European film, Mahamet-Saleh Haroun has equaled with ambiguity and force rarely seen in Africa cinema. Will the dry season accept a world of reconciliation that will lead to rain (a metaphoric wet season) and prosperity for future generations indoctrinated in love and traditional values? Perhaps, it will. Perhaps, not.

Dry Season won the 2007 Venice Film Festival's Grand Special Jury Prize and four other minor awards at the event.

Moolaade (Senegal), U–Carmen e Khayelitsha (South Africa), and In Casablanca, angels don’t fly (Morocco) (all three reviewed earlier on this blog) are three examples of mature works of recent African cinema, with its distinct African aesthetics, that transect the length and breadth of the vast continent and capture the tragedy and aspirations of its people. I am delighted to add Dry Season to my list of formidable contemporary African cinema.

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