Mahamet-Saleh Haroun's quietly engaging drama of rivalry between a father and his son sets the tone for the humanely explored film, A Screaming Man (Un homme qui crie). Adam (Youssouf Djaoro) is a former national swimming champion who now works as a pool attendant in a posh hotel in Chad, where his 20 year old son Abdel (Diouc Koma) assists him with the day-to-day running of poolside activities. Their loving relationship is intensely put to the test when new management at the hotel demotes him to the role of gate keeper, and installs Abdel in his place. Set against the backdrop of the raging civil war in Chad, this move accelerates tension, financial pressure and resentment that propels Adam to betray his family in the most unthinkable way.
The film has collected several awards since its release, including the Jury Prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, and, going to a screening of it at the just-ended Film Africa 2011, it is easy to see why Haroun is being hailed as one of Africa's leading film makers.
He has told the world a story with a simple but poignant touch which, rather than shake you in an obvious way, pierces and grips in the most subtle fashion, and it is the effective combination of cinematography, good central performances and context which make you sit up and pay attention.
This subtlety carries through to the end, one which is very moving, precisely because it does not descend into weepy sentimentality. Rather, there is a spatial quality to it - space to quietly observe and reflect on what you have just seen, as opposed to being meted out a firm conclusion by the director. For instance, much of the internal conflict - perhaps too much of it - stirring within Adam comes through long enigmatic camera shots that gradually close in on his face and highlight an inner battle not only with his son, but the community where he is harassed by the District Chief to contribute to the war effort against the rebels.
Again, rather than make it an obvious focal point, our initial glimpse into the reality of war is through snatches of news reports Adam listens to on his portable radio whilst at work. And yet, when we are confronted with actual images of war via CNN on his television, it is in shocking juxtaposition to a picture of domestic bliss in Adam's home - he is lovingly sharing watermelons with his wife while the images and reports filter through on the television in the background.
This is perhaps Haroun's way of not papering over the cracks - there is ongoing civil war in Chad - but he is at pains to stress that Adam's betrayal stems not from a political perspective, but a very personal force.
A Screaming Man was simply one of fifty films from Film Africa 2011, a ten-day event that celebrated the best of African film and documentary offerings over a range of subjects. Regrettably, I could not make it to the screening of Ghanaian-British writer, Yaba Badoe's 'Death by Chicken - The Witches of Gambaga', a documentary that explores the fate of Ghanaian women condemned and forced into exile camps for witches in Gambaga in Northern Ghana. (Whilst researching material for my undergraduate dissertation on the treatment of women in Ghana, information gathered, including a very revealing one from DOVVSU (Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit) provided shocking statistics that again and again called into question this and other decidedly stubborn embedding of harmful cultural practices against women. There are deep, harrowing issues in our society, yet, when it's not a nightmare WE are living, a combination of naivete (I don't believe something like this happens in the 21st century), detachment (it's something that happens to OTHER people), and helplessness (but what can little old me do?) feeds the inertia and wanes the desire to up and do something about it. Discussion for another day? I think so.)
It was the first time I was seeing a film by the Chadian director whose existence, up until a quick perusal of the schedule for Film Africa 2011, I hadn't known of. Sitting in an audience filled with an eclectic mix of young intellectuals from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), dedicated African film cinephiles and a host of others, it was clear each of us had come to see this cinematic offering from Africa with energetic interest. Perhaps because of this, I found myself looking out for scenes that would still be somewhat familiar to me, despite the theme and context of the film. And I was rewarded in two ways:
- the bothersome neighbour who constantly shows up to borrow some item or other (salt, onion..) from Adam's wife Mariam. Now this was familiar. Several times as I was growing up in Ghana, I would sometimes be dispatched on short errands to lend our next door neighbour anything from a small pestle (to pound palm nut. Abenkwan, anyone?) to an earthenware bowl ('asanka', 'apotoyewa' to grind food), and so this scene of communal sharing, though annoying for Mariam, made me smile.
- Djénéba, the beautiful 17-year old singer girlfriend of Abdel who randomly shows up and announces she is expecting his baby. (No, I don't make a habit of unexpectedly turning up at my boyfriend's parents' house, bestowing Earth Mother smiles and rubbing my stomach meaningfully, let's not get ahead of ourselves, okay?) The familiarity is in how she respectfully addresses Adam and Mariam as 'Papa' and 'Mother', and the touching way in which Mariam, after receiving this piece of news, gives Djénéba not a lecture, but food and a place to rest.
It is these simple but affecting scenes that guide the film to its climax. Is Adam sorry for his actions? Painfully, terribly so. But in the end, it is too little too late. There isn't so much a scream, as an agonising uncertain silence stemming from a single move that has volcanic consequences . It is that which leads to the conclusion that a screaming man is indeed 'not a dancing bear.'