Wednesday, June 27, 2012

129. Chadean filmmaker Mahamet-Saleh Haroun's “Un Homme Qui Crie” (A Screaming Man) (2010): A subtle perspective from African cinema on an unusual father and son relationship

Be careful not to cross your arms over your chest, 
 assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, 
 because life is not a spectacle, 
 a sea of pain is not a proscenium, 
 and a screaming man is not a dancing bear."

           (Extract from Aimé Césaire's poem
            Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, 1939,
            quoted at the end of the film)

Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man marks a definite improvement in style and content to his earlier work, the 2006 film Daratt (Dry Season). A Screaming Man is not just well crafted cinema, it offers an unusual tale that can make you reflect on the behaviours of people. It is not surprising that A Screaming Man won the Jury’s Prize for the Best Film at Cannes Film Festival, the Silver Hugo for the Best Film and Best Screenplay at the Chicago Film Festival and the Muhr for Best Film, Best Actor, and the Best Editor at the Dubai film Festival, all in 2010.

While Daratt won accolades at the Venice Film Festival for its ability to capture the political and economic conditions in Chad, often called the 'Dead Heart of Africa,' crippled by a 40-year civil war and more recently the economic onslaught of the Darfur refugees from Sudan, A Screaming Man takes the viewer closer to the heart of an ordinary African and his family values—with the ubiquitous political turmoil of Chad taking a back seat. A Screaming Man is an inward looking essay on film, while Daratt relied considerably on the external actions for the viewer to get inside the minds of its characters such as a young man, who is proud enough to refuse charity, even when hungry and penniless. The outstanding quality of the latest two Haroun films is that both are rewarding experiences for a reflective viewer with A Screaming Man likely to have more universal appeal than Daratt, which spun around the arms–related violence associated with civil strife.

Haroun’s A Screaming Man is an interesting and subtle study of the male mind in its winter years confronted with the world of his own seed blooming in the spring of youth. A loving father, who is aging, can grow jealous of his own progeny’s success at times though this is not a common occurrence. However, this unusual situation is not particular to Chad or to Africa—the tale could be universal. Adam, the father, is a former national swimming champ, a former hero in this 'Dead Heart of Africa.' He is now reduced to eke out a living as swimming pool supervisor in the swanky hotel catering to expatriates. Haroun captures the economic turmoil in the country by the subtle takeover of the hotel by a Chinese corporate house. Haroun opens his film with the 55-year old ‘Champ’ beaten in the ability to stay underwater longer by his own 20-something-year old son, Abdel, in the hotel pool. Both are employees of the hotel employed to take care of the pool and the guests who choose to swim there. Adam loves his job and is understandably jolted when the management, in an effort to trim costs, reassigns him to a lesser job of manning the gates of the hotel, while his son continues his work at the poolside.

A Screaming Man is a film that puts the allure of the pool and swimming in the forefront for none other than a former Central African swimming champ over the bleak prospect of seeing his own son enjoying the pool each day, while he has to scamper to his feet every time a vehicle comes to the gate far away from his first love, swimming, which had once made him a regional hero. Adam truly loves his only son Abdel. The film is about the aging Adam having to consider his own son as an adversary pushing him away from what he loves most, to swim and be the pool supervisor, a job that gives him a meagre salary, pride and sweet memories of what he had achieved in life. The film also focuses on how for a poor man in a developing nation a comfortable job in a posh surroundings can gradually make him oblivious of the real life dangers for his family living outside the hotel’s insular security and cleanliness. Even the economic and political turmoil in the country seem to be distant when you have such an employment.

That is merely the preface of the movie. Can a 55-year old, who made his name as a swimming champion be forced to stay away from the attractive waters of the pool? Would a father do a sinister act to get back to the pool at the cost of his son’s life? The rebel forces are closing in on the town and the father has to either contribute financially to a warring faction or permit his son, presently enjoying good life at the poolside, to be drafted against the son’s will into the armed forces of one of the warring factions. Haroun’s film provides us with visual clues that Adam, who spends each day at the hotel, returns each evening, to a modest living quarters, indicating that he is not rich enough to contribute to the war as he is socially expected to do.

Haroun’s latest film provides glimpses of the private life of the poorer sections of the Chadean Muslim household where the wife cooks for the father and son, where the father regularly compliments his wife for her cooking and when he does not do so the wife knows that something is amiss (and that it need not be related to her cooking!). The communion at meals is a time for family bonding and we see husband and wife about to enjoy a watermelon slice, when the intimate partaking of food is interrupted by a neighbour seeking to borrow some provision. Haroun does not show us the neighbour on two such interruptions in the film, but the camera concentrates on Adam’s family and their reactions to the interruptions. Haroun’s priorities are clear—develop the characters of Adam, Adam’s wife, and Abdel—not that of the peripheral neighbour. The Chicago Film Festival got it right—it is indeed a mature and well conceptualized screenplay.

Adam’s wife Mariam is developed by Haroun as the steadfast and unbending force in the family. She cooks well and expects to be complimented and thanked at the end of each meal she provides her family. She is able to criticize her husband on the right occasions. She believes in helping her neighbours who she knows will not return her favours. Like a true mother, she is unhappy at her son being drafted against his will. Like a good “mother-in-law” she welcomes her son’s lover, who not from Chad but from neighbouring Mali, into her house in his absence without a question. (This appears to be a subtle subtext in the film that Haroun introduces on the social churning in Chad with Malian and Sudanese populations living in Chad adding to the economic burden). It is Mariam who wants the family to leave town for their safety while Adam initially seems magnetically pulled towards his job at the swimming pool brushing aside the looming dangers of the civil war closing in on his doorstep.

Now Chad has both a Muslim and a Christian population of consequence. Haroun, who has written the screenplay himself, introduces David, the cook at the hotel, into the tale. David is the Christian element in the tale though no obvious religious symbol or action invades the film. David and Adam are friends and colleagues. Both feed a stray dog when they get a quiet moment to themselves. But the new Chinese owners of the hotel decide not just to move Adam from the swimming pool to the front gate but to replace David with someone else as the hotel’s cook. An unforgettable line spoken by David to the taciturn Adam at the turn of events is “David is not going to beat Goliath this time.” Goliath could be death knocking at the door of the laid-off and now sick cook. The smart screenplay of Haroun describes the replacement of David with two the simple but brief scenes that are evocative on the screen—David’s replacement refuses to feed the stray dog and the bench that used to carry the weight of David easily breaks under the weight of the new man! Haroun, however, does develop the character of David—the downsized cook. David states to Adam rather philosophically “Life continues.. but the problem is that we put our destinies in God’s hands.” David believes in God but that statement, when spoken by David as he seems to lose faith as an unemployed and sick man, is evocative, especially in the ears of Adam and ours as discerning viewers, who can view the predicament of Chad, not merely that of Adam and David.

The interesting aspect of Haroun’s development of Adam’s character is initially as a sounding board of his wife Mariam and his Christian colleague, David. Adam listens to both and ingests their views almost silently. Initially in the film, Adam does come through as the ‘’dancing bear” of the Aimé Césaire poem.

The transformation of the “dancing bear” into “a screaming man” of the poem, follows two interesting sequences in the film. One is the arrival of the pregnant Malian singer, Djeneba, who claims to be carrying the child of Abdel and is received into the household of Adam and Mariam without questions. The second is sequence when Adam returns home and sees all the town fleeing in the opposite direction. It is then that Adam speaks one of his rare lines “It is not me, it is the world that has changed.

The last part of the film (presenting some fine outdoor camerawork of cinematographer Laurent Brunet, comparing well with his commendable indoor photography earlier in the film) delves on the actions resulting from changes in Adam's mindset and what he could do to redeem his past mistakes. And as the film began, it ends with Adam and Abdel immersed in water, albeit under different circumstances. It allows the viewer an unusual perspective of external forces that decide how you balance varied duties to your family, your profession, your religion, and your country. Ultimately the movie suggests that it is not the external forces that ought to prevail, but one's own convictions that decide one's priorities. And that development of the plot is what makes this a very decent and sophisticated African film worth viewing.

P.S.  Mahamet-Saleh Haroun's Daratt (Dry Season) was earlier reviewed on this blog. A rarely viewed film from India on a similar relationship, which is historically true, is Feroz Abbas Khan's Gandhi, My Father, also earlier reviewed on this blog.