Guest Blogger: Bentley BrownIn the Absence of Cinema

Abakar Chene Massar wrote and starred in Le Pèlerin de Camp Nou. Photo by Mahamat Ali Boukhary.
Abakar Chene Massar wrote and starred in Le Pèlerin de Camp Nou. Photo by Mahamat Ali Boukhary.

We waited out the midday heat in the shade of a hajlij tree as we always did, and Abakar Chene proposed that we start making films.

I was 16 at the time, and Abakar, slightly older, was the head a of local theatre troupe that performed comedy skits at weddings and special events. We had met on a soccer field three years earlier and had been friends since day one, sipping one glass of mint-muddied green tea at a time.

Armed with a Sony Handycam, we shot a ten-scene drama whose protagonist dabbles in HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories. I edited the film live on a VCR—record, pause, record—channeling live sound from a CD player through a four-track mixer.

It was amateur. It was on VHS. And it was projected one night onto the wall of the town FM radio station.

A hum of excited chatter overtook the audience—laughing perhaps in some places it shouldn’t. The smiles and hand-clapping afterward were accompanied by one complaint: “Why didn’t you use Chadian music? This is the first film we’ve ever seen from Chad—it’s missing Chadian music.”

It wasn’t the first film made in Chad. Years earlier, in 2000, Chadian actor Haikal Zakaria hit screens (or, more accurately, VCD players) as the lead character in Daresalam, perhaps the first Chadian feature-length narrative and certainly the first to garner an international distribution deal.

Daresalam director Issa Serge Coelo cast Zakaria as the film’s protagonist, a villager-turned-rebel in a “fictional” civil war. In the film, Zakaria internalizes the disillusionment with civil war in Chad as Koni, a contemplative character whose disgruntlement is divided between the government’s corruption and the rebellion’s idealism.

Even before Daresalam, Zakaria became a national sensation as Al Kanto, a persona he developed in a series of medium-length comedies ridiculing the incompetence of the Chadian military (especially ironic two decades later after Chadian soldiers took the lead
last month in the Mali counter-insurgency).

A scene from Le Pèlerin de Camp Nou. Photo by Hisseine Moussa.
A scene from Le Pèlerin de Camp Nou. Photo by Hisseine Moussa.

It was rumored that the only reaction afforded by President Idriss Déby, in power since a military takeover in 1989, was to appoint the very popular Zakaria an honorary commander in the army. This, explained to me as a 14-year-old, was a public gesture towards the preservation of free speech. All I can remember is that we never spoke of the president by name—code names such as “Alberto” rose and fell in popularity just like slang terms—and to this day exercise extreme caution that our words do not fall on unwanted ears.

Another filmmaker, on the rise at the time, chose a more subtle approach to criticism of the government. For Mahamat Saleh Haroun, whose 1999 docudrama Bye Bye Africa depicted his own return to Chad from media training in France—Coelo, who was filming Daresalam at the time, makes a cameo—war and the failed state are key elements in the universe of his films.

Haroun cemented his position in international cinema with the 2004 feature Abouna, a narrative in which two brothers await the return of their runaway father, himself a movie star abroad. In 2006, Haroun released Daratt, a stunning revenge tale of a teenager traveling to Ndjamena to find his father’s wartime killer. And in 2010, his film Un homme qui crie, about a swimming pool janitor’s internal struggle in sending his son to the army, won the 2010 Cannes Jury Prize.

A massive coup d’état attempt in 2008—a rebel army consolidated from multiple resistance movements sieged Déby’s presidential palace for three days before the French military intervened—prompted Déby to divert oil funds to very visible signs of “development” in Ndjamena over the past four years. In addition to enormous government ministry buildings, museums, and monuments, the government rehabilitated the decrepit Normandie cinema on Ndjamena’s central Charles de Gaulle Avenue. As with all of these constructions and restorations, Déby’s face and political party logo sit smug on a banner along the cinema’s outer walls.

From the set of Brown's film "Faisal Goes West" in Dallas, Texas. Photo by Alyaa Sirelkhatim
From the set of Brown’s film “Faisal Goes West” in Dallas, Texas. Photo by Sarah E. Pyle.

Mahamat Saleh Haroun appeared in 2011 in Jeune Afrique’s English counterpart The Africa Report, with a piece titled A brief introduction to the death of African cinema. Haroun argued that, despite technological advancements such as the digital revolution that have made cinema-quality filmmaking more affordable, filmmakers in Chad and elsewhere still face tremendous hurdles getting their work finished and available to audiences.

Although Haroun’s films cast a very skeptical light on the government, particularly its militarism, he argued that “cinema needs to be supported and financed by our own countries if it is not going to disappear.” In effect, he endorsed the government’s restoration of the Normandie and spoke positively about its National Radio and Television Office, including plans for a film school in the coming years.

Should governments play a role in fostering cinematic art? Absolutely, but the role must be hands-off to allow for artistic integrity.

Around the time Haroun published the article in the Africa Report, the Chadian national television station TéléTchad told me behind closed doors that “90%” of its programming must serve the “president’s agenda.” At the same time that the network aired our last film from Ati, Le Pèlerin de Camp Nou, it refused to offer a sum for usage of the film and proposed that we “return to Ati and film documentaries painting a positive picture of rural life.”

Haroun still chooses to live in France, and although he should be commended for drawing international attention to Chadian cinema, he has bypassed Chadian talent on a few instances to do so. For every film since Bye Bye Africa, which featured the legendary singer Alhadj Ahmat Pecos, Haroun shied away from Chadian musicians for his films’ soundtracks, opting instead for more accessible West African artists, and has repeatedly cast non-Chadians as Chadians. In what some argue is a serious compromise to cinematic integrity, he cast Malian-French actor Diouc Koma as a key protagonist in Un homme qui crie: the son who joins the army’s fight against a rebellion in eastern Chad.

Catering to international audiences, Haroun wrote an unrealistic amount of Un homme qui crie’s dialogue in French—Coelo did the same with Daresalam. Haroun passed Koma off as Chadian by teaching him generic lines in Arabic such as “Salaam, Abba” (“Hi, Dad”) and leaving the character silent in most scenes with his Arabic-speaking parents—a stylistic choice, sure, but painfully blatant to Chadian audiences (the few with adequate internet access to bootleg the film).

Of course, the Cannes jury didn’t notice the difference. And perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Haroun—he did, after all, assemble an international team to make the most internationally successful film in Chadian history.

Perhaps an overall shortage of trained film crew and actors means that films of Un homme qui crie’s scope must rely on some degree of international support—at least until things change for the better. Like with all his films, Haroun combatted local challenges with international funding.

Filmmakers in places like Chad will continue to look outside the country for funding, or to locally-installed film incubators, such as Mira Nair’s (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) Maisha Film Lab in Uganda or the Goethe Institut’s Sudan Film Factory in Sudan.

But is foreign funding really necessary for making films?

Abakar and I would like to think not. We relied on the goodwill and talents of volunteer, non-professional actors—many of them former soccer teammates—to shoot our next two films in Ati, both of them feature-length.

If anything, our friends taught us that creativity exists whether or not there is a vehicle for its expression. Often that creativity will find a way to make the vehicle, but when it cannot, one must be resourceful.

In the absence of cinema, there is only room to create. One mint-muddied green tea at a time.

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of Mr. Brown and do not represent the opinions of Human Rights Initiative or any of their employees.

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