About the highest tribute I can pay to Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, whose “A Screaming Man” opens tomorrow at the Film Forum in New York, is that I regard him as the finest director coming out of Africa since the death of Ousmane Sembene in 2007. Hailing from Chad, Haroun cites Yasujirō Ozu as his major influence. While the focus on a family, the pacing, and the psychological insight of his latest film is clearly Ozu-esque, “A Screaming Man” differs from the Japanese director’s work by placing the family in the crucible of civil war. While most films about civil war in Africa tend to be documentaries made by Europeans or Americans from the standpoint of shocked and outraged outsiders “bearing witness”, this fiction film is far more interested in demonstrating how the already frayed relationship between a father and a son is exacerbated by the broader conflict taking place on the battlefield.
The two main characters are Adam, a fifty-five year old pool attendant who was once an amateur swimming champion, and his son Abdel who works alongside him. There are subtle signs that globalization has overtaken Chad’s capital city N’djamena. Abdel is obsessed with his digital camera and insists on taking photos of his father on practically a daily basis. When asked by his father why he bothers, Abdel answers that he wants to record life as it passes by–one supposes like director Haroun himself. The hotel has recently been privatized and is owned by a Chinese woman who appears to have absorbed the colonialist mentality of her French predecessors (the characters all speak French). She tells Adam that he has a nice job sitting comfortably by the pool each day, implying that he is a loafer.
That is about to change. Mrs. Wang is downsizing. She fires the cook from the Congo, as well as the security guard who tends to the automobile gate at the hotel’s entrance. That job now belongs to Adam who reacts angrily. How can a former swimming champion be made into a low-level flunky? It probably never dawned on him that tending to the pool is not that much of a step up. But in poverty-stricken Chad, everything is relative.
The crushing blow, however, is that his old job will now go to his son. There is something almost Oedipal about this arrangement since Adam now feels that he has effectively host his manhood. Or looking at a more recent tragedy, he evokes Willy Loman whose self-worth is totally wrapped up in his ability to make the rounds as a salesman.
Just as Satyajit Ray’s aptly named “Distant Thunder” dramatizes the impact of WWII on the people of Bengal who would suffer famine after the British seized their grain, the distant thunder of civil war in Chad begins to impinge on Adam, Abdel and their countrymen. At first, it is only felt economically. A venal district chief spouting government propaganda pressures Adam to make “voluntary” contributions to the war effort. Things take a turn for the worse, however, after the district chief raises the subject of fresh recruits for the military. In a pact with the devil, Adam decides to turn over his own son in order to reclaim his job at the hotel, a decision that has tragic consequences.
Adam is played by Youssouf Djaoro, who conveys his various emotional states (anger, regret, compassion) through facial expressions as much as words. Abdel is played by Diouc Koma, who grew up in Paris. Haroun directed him to act as if he was a young man from Chad and succeeded.
Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is no stranger to civil war. In 1980 he was severely wounded and left Chad on a wheelbarrow to reach neighboring Cameroon. In 2006, when he was filming “Daratt”, another movie about civil war in Chad (available from Netflix), rebels invaded N’djamena, where he was shooting. The same thing happened two years later when he was making a short titled “Expectations”. All this obviously helped to shape “A Screaming Man” as the director states in the press notes:
I tried to depict this atmosphere of fear of the future in A SCREAMING MAN. When you see that the world around you is going to pieces, when you have lost all your bearings, when the political and social pressure is too strong, you end up being out of your depth. This is what happens to Adam. After committing the unforgivable sin, he immediately wants to atone for his misdeed in order to redeem himself. But he comes to the sorrowful realization that despite his cry of pain God remains silent. He realizes that there will be no redemption. That he will never find peace.