A conversation with the great Mahamat-Saleh Haroun about his new film Grigris and his cinematic legacy to date.
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is Africa’s greatest filmmaker. The Chad-raised, Paris-based auteur’s Abouna (Our Father) is a masterpiece. A Screaming Man won third prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. This year Grigris was one of the 20 films in Cannes’ official competition. The lovely, generous African caught up with Alexander Bisley on a sunny Parisian weekend. Via Skype, Haroun talked about the big screen’s magic, intimacy, economic violence, hope, and why he won’t return to Ouagadougou.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: One of my favourite African classics is the Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty’s moving The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, dedicated to the courage of street children. “Cinema was born in Africa because the image itself was born in Africa,” Mambéty once said. “Oral tradition is a tradition of images. Imagination creates the image and the image creates cinema.” Do you agree?
MAHAMAT-SALEH HAROUN: Mambéty was a great storyteller. What he says is true, in a way. I think that’s a romantic view of things. If oral tradition were the basis of cinema, African cinema would be very powerful, which is not the case.
AB: What was Mambéty like?
MH: He was very kind. He didn’t talk a lot, so we just discussed cinema when we met at festivals. Also, we spent time sitting there and drinking beer, in a silent moment. Being happy together without saying anything, you feel things without having to talk. He was a prince. I love this guy very much.
AB: In Grigris, like Dry Season (Daratt) and A Screaming Man, your cinematography is beautifully complemented by Wasis Diop, Mambéty’s brother, who also composed the music for The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun.
MH: Wasis Diop is an artist. He’s so sensitive; he has a sense of images because he started as a photographer first, he understands. He understands things very quickly when you talk about cinema. I like the way he composes his music; his music is respectful of your images. It’s to be on the images side, to work together. Wasis knows that my images don’t need a lot of music, this is very important. We understand each other very well. Our collaboration is very strong.
AB: As Grigris memorably records.
MH: Wasis studied by reading the script before making the music. We discussed it a lot as we are neighbours. He made this music on Grigris and in Ouagadougou we met Soulémane Démé. We gave him the music, he performed in front of us and then Wasis started to change the rhythm of the music, just to create a special rhythm for Soulémane Démé. He was very inspired by the guy.
AB: You met and were inspired by Soulémane Démé at Ouagadougou, when you were taking a break from an uninspiring Ouagadougou Film Festival in 2011 (with A Screaming Man)?
MH: I made some interviews saying I’m not going to go to the Ouagadougou Film Festival again. I was invited to a dance spectacle. Soulémane Démé was dancing. He was just divine. He was extraordinary. I thought, “This is the guy that’s going to be the main character of my next movie.” I had a script about gas traffickers and I was not happy about it. Without him there was no film. So I focused on the story about Soulémane Démé. This meeting was a divine meet.
AB: He’s an extraordinary dancer, and a very charismatic and engaging screen presence.
MH: He’s just fantastic. Every time I have screenings, people are astonished. He’s the most important thing.
AB: So you won’t go to the Ouagadougou Film Festival again?
MH: No. I ended with the festival in 2011 because I think it’s not a human experience. How could you be so disorganised after 40 years of organising this festival? It’s disrespectful for filmmakers so I stopped, I don’t want to put my movies in that competition anymore. I just want to show it out of competition, for the audience. I don’t want to be there. You come home, and you can’t get respect; not even at home. This face of Africa doesn’t interest me. I want to show positive images of people. I don’t want anything to do with this failure. That’s it. Normally all filmmakers should stop going, but people are interested in Ouagadougou’s prizes because there is FESPACO money and we all have the same problem: we need money.
AB: Your films are very cinematic. Shots like A Screaming Man’s handsome, blue closing shot; Grigris’ striking ending need to be seen on the big screen, don’t they? (The big screen is where you dream your images, isn’t it?)
MH: Absolutely. That’s because I started with the big screen. Nowadays I think that a lot of young people start just watching movies on a small screen like a Smartphone or TV. You lose something. The first image you see on a big screen, it’s something magical. When I saw my first movie in Chad, we didn’t have television, so the first image in my memory is the big screen. In a way the ending of Grigris, it’s like Moolaadé, because in Moolaadé the main power used to burn the radios, and now there is a young man who is called Grigris, and he has an alliance with the ladies and he helps to repair the radio. No more way to burn radios. People trying to build something new.
AB: It’s a strong ending, one of the biggest demonstrations of girl power since the late Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade.
MH: I wanted to make a tribute to all the women I know and love in my country. In Chad we have several mothers; your biological mother, your mother that helped you to do something, and a kind of adoptive mother; you have aunts, sisters, clandestine lovers. We belong to women in Africa. [Spoiler Alert!] The idea is the story, normally when you see a film like Grigris, we could expect that Grigris could be killed at the end. It has been constructed like a tragedy, but because of this community of women they stop everything and they create a new story. When you’re in a community, when you have solidarity, you can create your own destiny, take destiny in your hands. That’s what they do: to save these lovers, Grigris and Mimi.
AB: Chad’s capital N’Djamena’s cinema reopened in 2010 with A Screaming Man, after Chad’s seemingly endless Civil War ended. Grigris just opened in Paris. Before screening in competition at Cannes in May, it had a special premiere in N’Djamena?
MH: It was more than 30 years. People don’t have a cinema, so they don’t have the habit to go to cinema. But I went there before Cannes for a premiere and there was a lot of people and they were really happy, very crazy about it and they loved Mimi and Grigris. After the screening they were looking for Mimi, “Where is Anaîs Monoroy?” They fell in love with this lady, she became an iconic woman. I think cinema is something to do with dreams sometimes. You can make reflection in your film, it’s also possible to make iconic figures, faces. She became an iconic woman there. Grigris’ ideas were more appreciated [by the Chad audience] because they feel it’s more accessible than A Screaming Man and Daratt. They loved it very much.
AB: There are scenes of wonderful intimacy in your work: the moment of motherly tenderness in Abouna (Our Father); Adam eating watermelon with his wife in A Screaming Man; there’s that gorgeous scene where Mimi unbraids her hair (and you then cut to their interlocking feet) in Grigris.
MH: Intimacy is also to do with tenderness, and we all have this intimacy where we can show another face, that you keep for you and your lover. It’s a secret, and the camera lets me show this intimacy. It’s not just sex, it could be tenderness, or a private joke. I love that. It’s a way to discover parts of the characters.
AB: Well done. “Beware of assuming the sterile attitude of spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of miseries is not a proscenium, a screaming man is not a dancing bear.” You concluded A Screaming Man with a quote paying tribute to the great, then recently departed Martiniquan intellectual Aime Cesaire. How has Cesaire been an influence and inspiration?
MH: Well in Chad we used to learn, to study Aime Cesaire, Senghor, all those guys at school. I think that Aime Cesaire, he wrote his books sixty years ago but when I read him again, it’s like it’s just in the news. I like his way of being engaged, not in a dogmatic political way, I think he’s always there. We are from the desert so we need people who can become our shadows. It’s helping us in some places, so Aime Cesaire is one of my shadows. It’s good to come back to him, and read some of his poems; he’s still in the news because he is right.
AB: You concluded A Screaming Man powerfully with that quote of his.
MH: It was a tribute to Aime Cesaire. Being engaged means being sensitive to what’s happening around you, and being sensitive to the world. As just men, you have to take care of your neighbourhood. Being a citizen is acting for the future.
AB: Father-son relationships are a recurring, strong idea in your films. What did your own father do?
MH: I have a really great relationship with my father. I don’t know why I’m obsessed by this theme of father and son, but I think it’s because I didn’t have a cinematic father, an African one, I mean. I wanted to become a filmmaker very soon when I saw my first movie, a Bollywood movie, when I was nine. I missed African films, African stories, so I don’t remember the first African film I have seen. Maybe I feel awful at not having this kind of African filmmaker father, transmitting to me the way to tell [African] stories. I saw a lot of movies from other parts of the world before I watched an African movie for the first time. So it was down in my spirit when I saw my first African movie. I have already seen films by John Ford, and by Charlie Chaplin. I have seen Roma, and all the things you can’t forget. So when I met the first African movie, it couldn’t be that kind of father because I had already seen a lot of films. I think that maybe the theme of father and son comes from that, from this feeling that I didn’t get an African filmmaker [father].
AB: I really like all your films but my favourite is still Abouna (Our Father), which I think is a masterpiece.
MH: Thank you very much. I love Abouna too, because it has something very delicate, it’s true love. I think I make movies for that, because I was very happy when I first saw a movie, I felt so good. I think maybe I make movies just to make people feel good. This happiness I had, it was a gift and so I’m trying to entrust [my movies] with the same gift I had. This life, you receive something and, if you’re normal and generous, you give it. Life goes on like the wind; you open the door and you have the wind; open the window and the wind is moving and leaving.
AB: Lovely idea. Like Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us?
MH: Yes. Wind is life, I think.
AB: Have you seen War Witch?
MH: I couldn’t unfortunately. I’m waiting for the DVD because everyone is talking about it. I think the young actress seems great.
AB: Like Abouna’s Ahidjo Mahamet Moussa and Hamza Moctar Aguid, Rachel Mwanza, who won best actress in Berlin, is unforgettable.
MH: It was great, it was so notable. This image: she was listening to her headphones and she was not expecting any prize. When you are an artist, you make it and when you are satisfied, that’s it. It’s like what I want to do, I’m not waiting for any prize. That’s it. She was just listening to her music, she was not in the theatre. She was somewhere else and they called her, “Hey, come on, it’s you!” I think that’s the way we should make our films. By not being stressed about waiting for anything. Just you make it, and if you make it with your heart, they will receive it.
AB: Mati Diop is another impressive actress, as in the Claire Denis film, 35 Shots of Rum.
MH: She is a great actress and also a good filmmaker. She made a documentary about her uncle, Djibril Diop Mambéty called A Thousand Suns. She got the big prize in Marseille very recently.
AB: What do you think of Claire Denis’s work set in Africa?
MH: I know Claire Denis. She’s a friend. I love her work. Claire Denis moved from Africa when she was a child. She didn’t make the choice to leave Africa. So she had this very strong relationship with Africa and so I think she’s trying to recreate this paradise childhood every time she makes a film there, which is very interesting and poetic. I love her work, anyway.
AB: Like you, she has given us some beautiful, memorable images.
MH: She’s documenting Africa, holding Africa in her head. Cameroon is her place. She has a lot of love for Cameroon, but also for Chad because she has been there, she knows a lot of things. She’s really very connected to Africa. In part, she has an African way of being a filmmaker.
AB: I was pleased to see she was also at Cannes with you (although out of competition), with her new film, Bastards.
MH: I haven’t seen it yet, unfortunately. When you have a film in Cannes, you are so busy with your own work; doing interviews and things. You stay there for three nights, you don’t have any time to see [other films]. There is so much stress, it’s impossible. It’s an egocentric spectacle: all your film and nothing [else] exists.
AB: With Grigris, I saw perhaps elliptical homage to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood?
MH: A lot of people talk to me about They Live By Night by Nicholas Ray. I know all of his movies but it was not a reference. I love very much There Will Be Blood. For a long time I was thinking about this film when I saw it. I didn’t see it again to be inspired. You never know, you know? When you like a work, it’s just in your memory. I love the idea of There Will Be Blood.
AB: That scene [Spoiler Alert!] when the gangster drives Grigris out into the field may be in the vein of the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing?
MH: I love the Coen brothers. They have a humour and ironic way sometimes. They take real pleasure in making films. That’s very important.
AB: Last time I spoke to you, you said your (compassionate) creative philosophy is, “Human being is the centre of all.” How does this develop through your creative process?
MH: I think that means that complexity is in human beings, and when you have a character, follow affection, give more freedom and liberty to the actress to be themselves. I like how actors and characters sometimes are the same. I don’t like to be in fiction always. It’s very difficult to explain in English, I’m sorry.
AB: Can you tell me about any upcoming film projects?
MH: I cancelled this project called African Fiasco because the producer asked me to make this film and I wasn’t very happy, as it’s not my way of making cinema. We don’t have the same point of view on the project so I gave up. Right now I’m trying to write a story in France. I want to make a film in France because it’s been 30 years I’ve been living here. I love this country, my next movie will be [set] in Paris and the title will be A Life in France.
AB: It will be about Chadians in Paris?
MH: It will be a story about a worker, an old worker remembering some things. He has been there for more than 40 years; he knew France in those beautiful times, before Le Front National, before the racism against immigrants there is in Paris now. It’s just like his memory and how he had kids in France. It’s a small story meeting the big story. Dominant cinema forgets the point of view of old workers. We don’t see a lot of workers in cinema, not nowadays. I want to tell this story.
AB: Sembene formed his saw-toothed consciousness as a Marseille immigrant dockworker. In A Screaming Man you evoked that degrading experience people have of unfairly losing their job, having that meeting with inhuman HR people. I’ve seen that in New Zealand.
MH: Nowadays because of globalisation, we experience the same things everywhere. That same kind of economic violence is made everywhere. Cinema has to deal with that violence, show it, and let people reflect about that.
AB: You told the BBC “All my films are political,” a politics that’s very much grounded in human beings: human being as the “centre of all.”
MH: Absolutely. When I talk about, “human being is the centre,” it’s trying to give dignity to people and let them respect their own regard, their own point of view on themselves. In Grigris, Soulémane Démé feels he has no problem.
AB: You have that extraordinary scene at the end. Even though Grigris has a deformed leg, he is a happy and inspirational character. Throughout your films, you’re wanting people to take away hope, aren’t you?
MH: It’s important to give dignity to people. Be part of a human experience. That’s what I’m talking about when I say, “human being is the centre of my work,” It’s political because it deals with the question of society, the place of people. It’s political because it’s life in the city. So everything is political for me. If there is no politics, there is no point.
AB: I love those scenes of Grigris dancing, on the rooftop by himself, they’re beautiful and inspirational.
MH: We made the movie and his life changed. He is considered an artist, and so he has a contract. He dances like he did in the film. If cinema can transform things and let people be more independent, it’s very important. I think the experience of making the movie also has to change people. It’s not a question of money because we don’t have big budgets, we have to deal with what we have. My first ingredient is a human. I have to take care of them.
AB: It’s great news that Grigris’s work conditions have improved thanks to your film. He’s dancing in Ouagadougou?
MH: Now he gets a fixed salary, he has become a professional. Now he’s trying to write a solo dance show, a spectacle of one hour about his life. For me, this is more important than the film because this is reality, and this is change. I love when you change the lives of people by just making a movie.
Alexander Bisley’s MIFF ‘First Fifteen’: Grisgris, Jimmy P, A Touch of Sin (director and actress in attendance), The Turning, No Name Big Blanket, Museum Hours, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Rhino Season, Bastards, Like Father, Like Son, The Dance of Reality, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Juvenile Offender, Aim High in Creation, All Is Lost; plus, The Attack (wildcard).