Interview with Mahamet-Saleh Haroun

Published on: March 23rd, 2004


THY KINGDOM COME.

An interview with Mahamet-Saleh Haroun,
writer and director of Abouna (“Our Father”)

conducted during the Edinburgh Festival, August 2002, by Neil Young

Bienvenue en Ecosse!
Oui, merci.

It’s your first time in Scotland?
Yah, it’s my first time, yes

And how do you like it?
Oh! nice – I love single malt whisky. The people are very kind, I am very happy to be here.

What’s it been like at the Film Festival?
I heard about the Festival, it’s a great one, and we have a distributor in the United Kingdom so I’m happy to be here and present my. it’s my second feature, but it’s my first one to be shown in the United Kingdom, so I’m very proud, let’s say.

This is your second movie. In the first, Bye Bye Africa (1999), you were also the star. Do you appear anywhere in Abouna, in a Hitchcock-like cameo role?
I did that before in my short movies, every time appeared just for a few seconds, like Hitchcock, because I love very much Hitchcock – he was one of my great film-makers. When I was a teenager he was my best film-maker, and now I have some other preferences also.

You so far haven’t made a thriller. How would you describe the genre of Abouna?
It’s genre. drama-comedie-drama. Comedie dramatique we call that in France. I wrote it very simply, just with three acts. The first act – the kids are nave, and I tried to be aussi proche - near to them, and have their own point of view, so things are just – going up and up and up until the tragedy. First they are in the city, then they go to the village, in the Koranic school, and one of them dies, and the other one runs away with the mute. I made it like, how to say, a painting. Like a triptych.

How much improvisation was there?
Everything was written but I like very much to work with improvisation in my movies, so I have dialogues and then I ask every actor to bring his own word, and speak in his way, and not to say ‘You have to do that.’ I like to give them the liberty to move and be themselves and to catch this. truth. Everybody has his own truth, so that’s what I did and the first, before starting shooting the two kids met, and they stayed together for a long time, two weeks. They became ‘confreres’ – like brothers, sleeping in the same room, playing together, and they became not brother maybe but like friends. There was a lot of complicity, so when we started shooting it was really very easy.

Did the actors have much influence over the major events in the plot development?
It’s my own imagination, but the older one – he’s an actor from the theatre since he was nine, so now he’s 17, he’s working for 8 years and when I gave him this character it was like he brought something. I didn’t give him any indications, just to play to be himself, and he brought something like a melancholy or something – very deep. But I don’t like to give indications to actors, except try to get the truth and get them to give you something. And when you have the truth so you have something beautiful.

I give just one sentence, maybe just one word. Saying ‘love’ or something, the actor can just improvise from that word. I want you to say to this person that you love him, so even if you don’t even have any words you can just touch his hands or do something, your own way, to express it. But I don’t give them dialogue.

Do you favour many takes?
No, because the problem is when actors are non-professional – if you repeat and rehearse a lot, and they are kids, they are maybe too much concentrating. So I have to shoot the first one will be the best, because if not they are like tired or something like that and you don’t have the same dialogue as before, because we are improvising. So we tried to just concentrate them and then shoot in one shot or two shots. If you have more than three shots it’s not good.

We don’t see many films from Chad – what is Chad cinema today?
Chad cinema is really non-existent because we have until now three features. One from my friend called Issa-Serge Coelho, the movie is called Daresalam but we don’t have many movies because we had war and all cinema-theatres were destroyed so there is nothing to do. I am trying to write and to tell all these stories about war, about divorces, about a lot of problems. That’s maybe why we have things to tell to others because for a long time we didn’t say anything, we were just fighting. I think that maybe English people must just listen for five minutes or something like that. If they could just give us that attention, just listening, because we are sincere, so audiences will may be captivated – what I am telling is just the truth, I don’t try to make any fiction or ‘advertisement movie.’ It’s not a joke or just comedy, it’s really about life and death.

Is the film in any kind of local documentary tradition?
We don’t have any tradition like that. I’m one of the first film-makers in Chad. We had a great guy who was a cinematographer but he didn’t make any movie – just reports for the president, travel trips and things like that. But documentary is good for me because life is so hard and so interesting so I don’t need to create something like science fiction. I just want to tell about my people – we have problems but they are still alive, and I want to tell stories about them.

So why do you think it’s you who have emerged as the pioneer of Chad cinema?
Maybe because I saw my first movie when I was eight, it was a closeup of an Indian woman in an Indian movie. This woman was smiling, I was with maybe 300 people and I thought she was just smiling to me – that was the beginning of my hobby.

A very similar event happens in the movie, when the children think their father is smiling at them from the screen. Was this a deliberately autobiographical touch?
Yes, even Abouna is connected with my own life. Creation sometimes is just a question of memory. If you don’t live in Edimbourg it’s difficult to write a story about it. Creation is connected with memory and every time I try to put a part of me in my movies because it’s near to me and it’s also sincere so I can recreate something.

So did the major events actually happen as in the movie – did your father leave or a brother die?
It’s very hard to explain. I had parents but I lost them, but I also have two children. It’s like for thes children with absent father – I move also, it causes a lot of problem.

They don’t see you too much because you’re always at festivals like this one?
When you are suffering and you believe in someone – let’s say God in Abouna, which means ‘our father’ – and he leaves you one day, without any reason, and all your hope has been in believing that he’s going to do something. That’s it – how could we manage and deal with reality in that case?

So is the film in some way about God having abandoned humanity?
We can in a metaphoric way maybe think like that but it’s really about just Father leaving his children. But we can see it in another way – for kids the father is like a hero. There is no small father for kids – every kid can say ‘My father is the strongest’ – they believe it, and that’s it.

At the start of the film the father turns to the camera and gives an ambiguous look before walking away. What was that look intended to signify?
He’s looking back – he was walking and then he looks and decides to go. That means that he leaves something. I tried to find what he was looking for – that’s his past. His own history and he left the two kids. It’s like I want to leave – and I don’t know how – and then he decides to go. It’s really a conscientious decision, a deliberate decision.

Did you ever have any idea of bringing the father back later, as would probably happen in an American or British movie?
No – some people told me I should maybe bring him back but it’s a Hollywood way of making movies. Sometimes when you see movies and the ending is very happy, then you know that you’ve just seen a cinema movie, because in reality when somebody leaves you it’s maybe forever. When you make happy end sometimes, in Chad they know that it’s not true. In this movie there is no hope, in a way, but there is some hope in fact because even if he is not there you just have to go on, that’s it, in life – even if you have a big problem you don’t have to make suicide. The majority of people living on Earth. everybody has problem – like the end of love, divorce, everything, you don’t have a job, or something, but you have to deal with reality. If not, every time when your love end you would just make suicide. The majority is just trying to go on even if it’s hard and that’s it with these kids.

You said there are no cinema in Chad – so has the movie been seen there yet?
Not yet. In October. I will show it there. There is just one cinema-theatre and it’s at the French cultural centre so it’s not really a Chadian cinema, it’s in a territory that belongs to France – like in Rome you have the Vatican City, a Catholic area. So I will show it there, they mainly show French films.

Are you working on anything now?
I’m trying to write another one, just a synopsis, but I don’t have anything concrete yet.

You mentioned Hitchcock as an idol – might you do a thriller in future?
I made a thriller, a short one called Goi Goi, it means ‘the dwarf’ – in Chad we have mythology about dwarves. Goi Goi is a kind of spirit, very malin. It was a thriller, like 15 minutes, and it was a tribute to Hitchcock.

What have been the other main cinematic influences on your work?
When I was young I was very interested by Orson Welles, but it’s now very far from me. I’m now more influenced by Abbas Kiarostami, another guy from Taiwan called Hou-Hsiao Hsien and Takeshi Kitano from Japan.

Football seems to be a running theme in the film. Are you a football fan?
Yes, I’m a football fan. Football is the best game we have – it’s very important because it’s the common area for all kids in the corner. Sociability, solidarity – the first way is this place. Playing together and having a referee, respecting everybody, but you need somebody else – not a kid like you, but somebody who can say ‘No you cannot do that’ – fair play. In the film the referee was not there so if you don’t have a referee it’s like a bordel - chaos, there is no way. That’s why I have that, I took this example of football.

We don’t hear too much about the Chad national team, unlike the neighbours from Cameroon.
They are not very good. We have a national team, but we had only two great football players. We had ‘Toko’ and now he is on the staff of Paris St Germain.

Is this why there’s a PSG poster on the wall?
I took this poster from the kids’ rooms. I wanted just to recreate a kid’s room, if they were brothers. And we have another player who played at Nantes and Monaco, and he is now in the staff of Monaco. Japhet N’Doram. We don’t have many great players, that’s the problem.

There are so many links with France. What is your own relationship with France – do you seem them as ‘the bad guys’?
Not at all. I live in France. I live in Bordeaux. Even when you love somebody you have also problems sometimes, so it’s like a love story – sometimes I’m against France.

But is there resentent sometime in Chad about France’s actions in the past?
In Chad yes, because until recently we had French military, so the memory of French people was their role in the war. They participated in the civil war against the rebels, so people have really not a good opinion of French people. But I was in a French school, and studied in a French college. Je suis tombe dedans - I landed there when I was 5.

You were a journalist – do you now see yourself totally as a film-maker?
I stopped journalism. I was working for daily newspapers in Poitiers, but there were times when I’d write a two-page article but there wouldn’t be room. In cinema you have your own place and your own reason. A movie can become like a music – it’s really creation. And journalism was not like that.

You had to answer to your editors – the film was made with money from various sources. Were you at liberty to make the film you wanted, or was there much external interference?
Not really. A lot of these foundations gave money at the end when they saw the last editing. When we finished the editing we were told we were accepted for Directors’ Fortnight, the money was easier to get.

So after your showing in Cannes are you now a celebrity in Chad, like a footballer?
Yeah yeah. We have this radio called Radio France International, and I was on television, so it was really a big event. So people are waiting for me now.

You haven’t been back since?
No.

They’ll all be waiting at the airport?
Maybe!

Would you consider moving back to live in Chad?
I would like to come back because I have now my own production company called ‘Goi Goi’ – he’s a small one who tries to fight the big battle. Because there is nobody in Chad doing this, I want just to help young people. I don’t want the story to stop with me – it’s like in a football team, you have substitutes waiting to come on.

So there might be a new generation of film-makers telling more ‘true stories from nature’ – is this a possibility, do you think?
Until now the problem is the access to the culture, to see movies, there is no cinema-theatre and the only one is very expensive, it’s for French people living there, they can pay the three euros.

There is only one cinema in the whole country?
Yes, just one, that is the problem. They have what they call video-clubs and they use a video-projector.

So in the film, where they go the cinema, that is totally fictional?
No, that’s a real cinema, the only one – the French theatre.

But in real life they wouldn’t go?
It’s not only for French people, everybody can go there – but it’s too expensive.

Why do you set some of the film on the Chad-Cameroon border?
A lot of people go – it’s closed, then they open the border at seven a.m. You don’t need a visa, you can go from Cameroon to Chad and back, and there is a big market in Cameroon – you can buy a lot of things that you cannot get in Chad. Chad is more rich, yeah.

So there’s freedom of movement for work etc?
It’s like in European community – where you can move from France to Spain, etc. It’s really a problem, this ‘phantom fathers,’ ‘ghost fathers’. They say they’re going to buy something in Cameroon, where it’s cheaper. The father says he’s going to buy something and be back in two hours, and you don’t see him again.

So this is a frequent occurrence in Chad?
Yes. When I told this story to one of my aunts, she said, that’s great, you are in the truth my son, because every morning on the radio you have information saying Mrs So-and-So is trying to call someone – lots of messages going back and forth. Mr X left home three months ago and we don’t have any news about him. If we don’t have any news in one week we will pronounce the divorce. She can remarry after three months. In one hour you have ten communications like that every morning, it’s something that is really happening. It’s a result of women working a lot, taking some small liberty, and men don’t know their place. It’s like a kind of crisis of masculinity.

Is it common in other central African countries?
In some way it’s a global problem, but it’s particularly bad in Chad – we have a lot of people moving to Saudi Arabia, to Sudan, Egypt, to Libya because of work. It’s incredible because when you look at Africa people look as though there’s a lot of solidarity.

So do you think the film could have an impact on solving the problem?
I don’t think that cinema can bring solutions to the government, I’m just trying to maybe make a reflection about the problem. It’s been more than one century that people are making films and I don’t think many realities have been changed because of a movie. I think if you give one and a half hour of emotion or something that’s more important. If somebody brings in his mind two or three pictures from a movie, that’s it. I think a revolution, it’s impossible to make by movie.

Perhaps it’s easier in Chad for an individual movie to make a difference, as there are so few of them.
We have an opportunity – I can show it and maybe. Every movie produces a big discussion.

You need more cinemas to show them.
Maybe we can have a reflection about this phenomenon. They leave and don’t pay money for the kids – if that’s the case then it would be great, but I don’t dream like that any more.

15th November 2002

by Neil Young

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