Friday, October 4, 2013

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun | Grigris and Bye Bye Africa

escape to the past
by Douglas Messerli

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (writer and director) Grigris / 2013
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (writer and director) Bye Bye Africa / 1999

The likeable young dancer of Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s 2013 feature, simply radiates innocence in his gap-toothed smiles and the placidity with which he accepts what comes his way. By night, Grigris (Souleymane Démé, despite a paralyzed leg, dances up a storm in the local nightclub, entertaining the denizens with his graceful moves. Each night they pass the hat so that Grigris will return and might survive his difficult life.

     By day, shuffling across the, Chad landscape, Grigris works as a part-time handyman and photographer for his step-father and his wealthy uncle nearby, seemingly happy in his simple life. A visit from a local prostitute, Mimi (Anaïs Monory) who wants photographs so that she might become a model, changes his life.

       For the shorter and crippled Grigris the mountain of beautiful flesh that Mimi represents transforms him, as also does the sudden emphysema plaguing his pipe-smoking step-father. It hardly seems to matter to him that Mimi, nightly bedded by all the local criminal entrepreneurs, is unavailable and out of his league. He becomes determined to win her over with his daring dancing, rolling flames across his body, lifting up his paralyzed leg to spin and dangle it in front of him almost like a sexual member.

      Similarly, it seems to hardly bother him to approach one of the underground criminals for a job. Lying about his ability to swim, Grigris joins in a late-night raid of petrol drums, almost drowning himself on the long police chase back to shore. He is threatened with being fired, but begs to remain in the criminal’s employ as a driver so that he might help in paying his step-father’s hospital bills.

      After a highly successful collection of canisters of gas, wherein Grigris outwits the chasing police, he is welcomed into the criminal coven, but soon after betrays his boss by absconding with a shipment and selling it to his uncle, who showers him with much-needed money. Although he has claimed he has been stopped and beaten by the police, the criminal sends out his henchman to beat and torture Grigris, demanding that he return the missing gas within three days. In blood-spattered attire, Grigris hides out Mimi’s, staying the night while she is out servicing her clients.

     She too is slugged for her complicity with Grigris, and both are threatened with death. Amazingly, however, these two lost souls—nearly destroyed by the city society in which they live—seek to escape to the country, a small native village where a close friend of Mimi’s has previously taken refuge. Pregnant and repentant about her past Mimi arrives with Grigris in the village, where all the men are away on a long hunt. Grigris claims Mimi is his wife, and convinces her he care for her and her child, despite her lurid past.    

     The native women of the clearly matriarchal society, moreover, immediately take a liking to this scarecrow of a man, who is clearly entranced by Mimi and who deals well with their children. They bring platters of basic food stuffs—beans, fruits, vegetables, and nuts—celebrating the couple for having selected their small village as a new home, a place to renew their lives.

      As one might expect, however, the past is slowly catching up as the criminal henchman drives by the village, finally stopping with intent of killing Grigris. Mimi, witnessing the attack shouts for the woman of the village, who miraculously come running, with homemade whips and clubs, surrounding the henchman and, when he refuses to release Grigris, kill him, burning his body up in his car, and pledging to one another complete silence about the event.

     Although it may be a bit difficult to imagine that this former dancer and whore will be able to spend the rest of their lives in this rustic world, director Haroun suggests it is a necessary choice, and way to escape the infamy of contemporary Chadian life by returning to the past. And in that sense this film is a kind of romantic fantasy which allows for the greatness of Chadian past.


A similar relationship between past a present was apparent already in Haroun’s first film of 1999, Bye Bye Africa, the second of two movies I saw last night in LAMA’s film series, “Caméras d’Afrique: The Fiilms of West Africa.

     Presented as a kind autobiographical documentary (although Haroun admitted that, unlike his central character, his mother still lives). the work beings with the death of his mother, the director returning to N’Djamena with the intent of making a film he will dedicate to her. Having lived for years now in France, the director is shocked to see just how derelict the city, its film houses, and the whole industry has become. Not only to his ready aphorisms, based on statements by Jean-Luc Goddard, no longer seem plausible in his homeland, but he meets, in many cases, with absolute hostility for “capturing the image of his would-be actors.” In this financially savaged society, reality is confused with imaginative writing. A former actress with he has worked, Stéphane Legoux, is presumed to have AIDS because she has played a character who did in his movie. Her life, he discovers, has been destroyed by his film-making, and even his former film-making friends, are convinced that there is no longer any way in a country where films are only shown in small rooms for members of the film clubs to get funding for their projects.

      Despite these impossibilities, however, Haroun does motorcycle across the city catching the faces of its people and the pace of their daily activities. Despite its dereliction, it is obviously still a world which the director loves. But, as the film suggests, you can’t go home again. In this world, at least, as Ghana writer Chinua Achebe put it, “things fall apart.” Haroun is forced to return to the European continent to create his art.

     But there may be hope, nonetheless, for the future, as a young boy whom Haroun has taken on as a kind of assistant, is delighted with the camera Haroun has left behind, the boy running after the fleeing director to catch the final images of this touching film.

Los Angeles, October 4, 2013

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