Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Chad's lonely filmmaker

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Dave Calhoun meets the director of the brilliant 'A Screaming Man'

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, 50, is a filmmaker from Chad in central Africa, whose fourth feature, ‘A Screaming Man’, opens this week. One of Africa’s most acclaimed filmmakers, Haroun has lived in France since the 1980s, but he has shot all his films in Chad. His last, ‘Daratt’, won a prize at Venice, while his latest, which tells of an ageing swimming champion whose feelings for his son are corrupted by war, won the jury prize at Cannes in 2010. The BFI Southbank is hosting a season of Haroun’s films this month.

After ‘Abouna’ and ‘Daratt’, this is your third film in which fathers and their failings loom large.
‘It’s like a triptych about the same theme, about fathers and sons living in civil war. With “A Screaming Man”, I wanted to explore the responsibility of fathers. In Chad, we’ve had war for almost 40 years, so there’s something passed from fathers to sons that allows this to continue. At the same time, I didn’t want to show the father as a bad person. I wanted to observe, without judgement.’

Have you shown the film in Chad? I remember you saying before there was no cinema in your country.
‘We’ve finally got a cinema, which is good news. It’s renovated and it’s the only covered one in the country. When I won a prize in Venice, they wanted to have an official screening of “Daratt” but they saw there was no cinema and so decided to renovate an old one and it opened with a screening of “A Screaming Man”.’

Who made that call?
‘The president, because the official screening of “Daratt” was at his palace, and as security in Chad is so important, you cannot close the curtains. So we were in a bright white room with a DVD projector. It was ridiculous, and they started talking about a cinema and gave a lot of money to it. The government was also proud of having “A Screaming Man” in Cannes so I hope things will change more. The government has asked me to put together a proposal for a film school too.’

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War is in the background of ‘A Screaming Man’, as in ‘Daratt’, but it’s rarely explicit.
‘I wanted to tell this story from the point of view of regular people. When we were shooting “Daratt” during hostilities, we were in a small room, 15 of us, and listening to a radio and hearing the war. When a bomb goes off, you hear a whistle and then an explosion, and you wait for that to know if everything is okay. I wanted to let the audience feel this.‘War has changed my life. I was 16 or 17 and injured and left my country. I didn’t choose to leave my parents and friends, but the war changed my destiny. Living far away, you have a wider lens, so maybe you see more.’

Who are your main influences?

‘As a child, I had two: western movies and Bollywood. Later on, Robert Bresson was a big influence, in terms of being simple in your storytelling, and also Japanese directors, like Ozu, and other Asian movies in which there is little artifice. This is close to my culture. In the desert, you don’t say much. You don’t have to talk and talk. The landscape is so empty and you are between the sun and sky and feel very small. You just drink tea and no one talks. Also, in the last few years I have discovered John Ford. He is one of the greatest. I like his sense of space and how he avoids close-up.’

Do you ever feel lonely as a Chadian filmmaker, or even as an African filmmaker more generally?
‘There is only one person with whom I feel solidarity and that is Abderrahmane Sissako [from Mali, director of ‘Waiting for Happiness’, ‘Bamako’]. I don’t see a lot of other people who are conscious that we as Africans were so invisible for so long. It’s important now to try and be in the centre and make a stand. I feel a little isolated, but there is Abderrahmane and he’s a good friend and a good filmmaker with vision.’

Read our review of 'A Screaming Man'



Author: Interview: Dave Calhoun



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