Seeking refuge in Sahelian cinema

Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun utilizes the fluid space of the Sahel to demonstrate the power of cinema as a limitless art.

Still from A Screaming Man.

In the midst of a pandemic I’ve found solace in cinema’s Sahelian space of vast isolation, trauma, and a moody depressed tone. There’s something particularly resonating for me about stepping into the frames of Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s cinema, for instance, as brothers, Tahir (Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa) and Amine (Hamza Moctar Aguid) do in Abouna (Our Father, 2002) as they gaze at the poster of a Mediterranean shoreline whose foamy waters fade into ebbs and flows so that their isolation—like ours—is mitigated by the magic of film.

Since his first feature, Bye Bye Africa (1999), Haroun has remained committed to making films in Chad. “If I stopped making [films],” he has declared, “you would never see images of Chad.” A landlocked country in north central Africa, Chad is the 20th largest country in the world; more than half of its territory is desert.

Still from Abouna.

The Sahel is by definition the expanse that separates the Sahara desert from the savannah. However, Haroun’s noteworthy cinema d’auteur style—a mixed palette of desert hues and vivid yet softened tones, where still frames are overlaid with traveling pans, trilling kora music, and limited dialogue—privileges movement across space. Captured in its fluidity, the Sahel is represented as a transitional and transitory space, as well as one of in-betweenness. Haroun’s films all share the common motif of looming civil war or its aftermath and stories of an absent father. But instead of displaying the violence of war on the screen, he uses the space of the Sahel to provoke thinking about the effects of war, about relationships, love, and history. He never leaves out the politics of African cinema or his deep love for the seventh art. Infusing the fluidity of the Sahel into his aesthetic approach allows Haroun to present these themes with a certain reflective realism and narrative ambiguity.

Perhaps his most stylized film, Abouna reveals the fluidity of the Sahel more than his other works. He accomplishes this through various shot sequences that lead us to question the confinement of the frame. Haroun utilizes the fluid space of the Sahel—its sounds, music, angles, stillness, color palette, lighting; its confined spaces and its movement—to demonstrate the power of cinema as a limitless art.

In the Sahel, people are constantly in movement across space, which Haroun captures using long-take traveling pans, for instance of Adam (Youssouf Djaoro) riding his motorcycle from N’Djamena to Abéché (almost 500 miles) to find his son Abdel (Diouc Koma), incorporating the same horizontal slow-paced long pan across the still water of the lake when he brings his son’s body back in A Screaming Man (2010). As Grisgris (Souleymane Démé) swims across the lake, a line of bobbing oil cannisters in tow (Grisgris, 2013), the camera’s closeup wide angle shot captures his movements, just as it does as he zigzags the narrow neighborhood streets.

Still from Bye Bye Africa.

The Sahelian landscape serves to announce the ambiguity of borders. Even actual borders in Haroun’s films are presented in a way as semi-fluid spaces, as bustling market exchange points, such as the Cameroon/Chad border that brothers Tahir and Amine visit one day in Abouna. Their smallness is framed in a wide pan as they run, play air soccer or walk on their hands across the vast flatness on their journey to and from the border. In hopes of finding their father, the boys’ arrival at the checkpoint is matched with a bustling constant flow of people in a bi-directional cross pattern. “Over this bridge, you’re already elsewhere,” Tahir tells Amine. But, curiously, Tahir and Amine do not try to sneak across this border to track their father down, like they do when they run away from a Koranic school. This leads to a question of Haroun’s ambiguous stance toward the construct of the nation as a confined, bordered space; likely it is a comment on migration as well.

We might say that Haroun along with Abderrahmane Sissako are the grand masters of Sahelian style. Sissako’s and Haroun’s films at times echo one another—Haroun himself notes that Abouna is sort of in conversation with Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness, both released in 2002 (Sissako also produced Abouna and Daratt). We see this sort of dialogue between films on visual and sonic planes in the films’ shared emphasis on the desert as transitory space.

For instance, the opening shot sequence of Abouna (Our Father) shows a man—we come to learn he is 15-year-old Tahir and 8-year-old Amine’s father (writer Koulsy Lamko)—walking with a suitcase across the desert. The camera follows him as he nearly disappears in the distant desert horizon then re-centers him in a closeup where he turns slowly and gazes directly into the camera for a moment before turning abruptly then continuing through the sand. Roll opening credits with the accompaniment of melodious guitar picking, the long shot completing the sequence with the small figure advancing further in the distance. Sissako’s opening frames the transitory port town of Nouadhibou, Mauritania, with an establishing shot fixed on a tumbleweed amidst a sandstorm, the sounds of high-speed winds and waves crashing in the distance.

While Haroun was probably thinking of the notion of “waiting”—Abdallah (Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamed), in particular, is waiting for happiness in Sissako’s film, and the boys Tahir and Amine are waiting for their father’s return in Haroun’s—the fluid space of the Sahel is central in both films, as a kind of moving crossroads where people come and go, either to Tangiers in the north or further to try and reach France. But mostly, these films exemplify the fluid space of life in the Sahel.

Still from Grigris.

Another shared element is the slow, albeit fluid pacing of the films. The most memorable scene in Sissako’s film La Vie sur terre (Life on Earth) is when the old men move their chairs out of the sun to match the pace of its own slow movement, accented by the flowing soft trills of the kora strings.

In A Screaming Man, several close-up long shots of the protagonist Adam add ambiguity to the reel; the viewer has to work to interpret and understand those silences. Of course, for Haroun, this is deliberate. His last aim is to be a didact. In this and other instances, those long takes of elliptical silence are complex utterances of emotion, which Haroun crafts carefully and thoughtfully.

In Daratt, Atim, whose name means “orphan,” journeys to N’Djamena with the sole mission of killing Nassara, the man who killed his father years prior during the war. Atim’s arrival in N’Djamena is signaled through the framing of the large mud wall of Nassara’s bakery and his bread cart; in an elliptical shot sequence, we see Atim cross in front, pause, then cross again in the opposite direction. There are punctuated silences and abbreviated dialogues between Atim and Nassara. This latter himself lost something in the war: his voice box when his throat was slashed, so in order to speak, he needs a prosthetic. Principally for that reason, he chooses his words carefully. Haroun’s camera captures a complex set of emotions, which are ambiguously evoked with few to no words. This aesthetic too is inspired by life in the Sahel. According to Haroun, his characters don’t talk a lot because that is how people are in Chad. “Against the immensity of the desert,” he says, “you feel very small… you don’t have too much to say.” (interview 1:12)

Still from A Screaming Man.

If Daratt can be considered a fable, its last aim is to moralize. Atim harbors a deep hatred for Nassara, but his hatred is rendered ambivalent in its complexity. His grandfather advises him to take revenge, seek justice after both hear that the Truth and Justice Commission has given blanket asylum to all who killed in the war. Darratt is about unresolved emotions in the aftermath of a war that started in 1965 and has never really ended. Hate in this regard is a complicated emotion. As viewers, we see Atim’s hate and vengeance turn into sadness. He becomes Nassara’s apprentice, and Nassara becomes a sort of father figure to him. Reflecting on his film, Haroun says the essence of Daratt is really that Atim has to decide if he wants to kill (to avenge his father’s murder) and he really only feels free once he knows he is not a killer.

Finally, whereas Haroun’s cinema is deliberately serious—he sees the comedic genre as a luxury—his filmmaking is by no means a somber endeavor. An integral element of Haroun’s poetic brushstrokes are the comedic moments that punctuate his films and make us fall in love with his characters. In Daratt, Atim and Aïcha, the baker’s wife, laugh and make fun of Nassara. Abouna has multiple laugh out loud moments throughout the film, such as when the boys’ mother says the father left because he was “irrésponsable,” and Amine’s ingenuous interpretation of the dictionary definition “Ahh! So, Dad’s not responsible for leaving!” lightens the mood as the boys carry on. Perhaps the most touching humor of the film comes from the brothers’ camaraderie and playfulness, notable especially in the joke Amine tells his older brother one night as they go to bed: “Do you know why roosters crow all the time? […] They don’t want us to hear them farting. Roosters are very proud! Hehehe ha ha ha” and his laughter carries on, raspy from asthma, as his brother’s reply to the sound of a rooster crowing adds, “Here’s one that even farts at night!” causing sustained laughter.

A genuine humor along with soothing music in Haroun’s films adds a certain tenderness to an otherwise deeply solemn tone. Perhaps as we reckon with our human smallness in the vastness of our current global crisis, we can find solace in Sahelian cinema, laughter through our tears, and allow the breaking of freshly baked bread to settle our unresolved emotions.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.