No man screams in A Screaming Man. Neither is any man in profuse anger here. The film’s title is taken from the verse of the famous African poet Aimé Césaire, who wrote: “A screaming man is not a dancing bear.”
The screaming is done within the mind. And what a mind to try and unravel! This film premiered at the Cannes film festival last May, becoming not only the first film from Chad to screen in official competition, but the winner of the coveted Jury Prize.
Often, stories of African strife are filtered through the pages of networks and newspapers or told by Western directors, as in Hotel Rwanda, Blood Diamond or The Last King of Scotland. These are fine films, but it is refreshing and moving to be afforded an intimate vantage point by a writer and director in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun whose remarkable personal piece of filmmaking stems from his experiences when he was severely injured in his country’s civil war in 1980, and was taken by a wheelbarrow to neighboring Cameroon.
He is however not interested in the big war scenes as you would see in movies like The Scent of Green Papaya. Instead, he weaves scenes like the one with Adam and his wife, Mariam, sensuously sharing a dripping piece of watermelon together with the increasingly frenetic radio and television reports about advancing rebels. The sound of jets overhead and the teeming refugees that flee to neighboring Cameroon all add up to make his style evoke a camera technique that isn’t flashy but rather is quietly powerful.
For example, he prefers a slow zoom in to a close-up on Adam’s stricken face than a monologue about his predicament. Or he shows a dead body floating down the river in the evening light at the end of the movie. Another haunting image comes as Adam drives his motorcycle down a pitch-black alley as his little headlight becomes tinier and tinier against the night.
A Screaming Man is a tension between father and son against a backdrop of civil war. At face value we easily understand that economics and war conspire to disrupt the routine of the aging Adam (Djaoro), who, having been Central Africa’s swimming champion in 1965, now spends his days guarding a pool at a hotel. Helped by his teenage son Abdel (Diouc Koma), the inflammation of hostilities in the civil war and the financial pressures cause the hotel’s Chinese owners to transfer the pool duties to his son.
Adam is devastated – ‘The pool’s my whole life’ – and his sadness and growing sense of his own age is compounded when his son tells him, “I have responsibilities too”. Not long after, Adam, under pressure makes a fateful decision to contribute to the government’s war effort by giving up his only son in a manner that has serious repercussions for his future and his family.
Beyond the surface of this story lies Haroun’s simple framing and pared-down storytelling that offers a contemporary parable about life in modern West Africa and creates a welcome space for the exploration of a few essential themes such as the battle between Young and Old, Father and Son, Old and New. At a time when foreign cultural influences are inevitable, African society – a culture that is stooped in valuing Age over Youth locks horns with influences that value Youth over Age.
In its wake the Old fights the Young (as Adam schemes to demote his son) to preserve the status quo (regain his position at the pool). This pattern is portrayed and excellently enhanced by the nature of the civil war itself, as the Older generation in Chad basically scheme and drive its Youth into civil wars that are only parochially beneficial to the Old. Alas, Haroun screams out loud, asking, “At what cost?” Such tunnel visions are what Monsieur Haroun edges us all to ponder over – hence the title, A Screaming Man.
The strongest point about this film is that the pacing is as solid as Adam’s quiet performance. And it says so much without having to. He is not entrenched in some well-said dramatic dialogue, but instead the whole emotion is felt and experienced along with the character. Little bits of some much-needed humor is provided by colorful minor characters like the resort’s cook who “cooks from the heart” and puts in too much salt only when he’s in love.
Nevertheless the film’s images and themes are more memorable and persuasive than its relationships and plot turns, some of which tend towards the unconvincing. But A Screaming Man has a slow, cumulative power and is a moving comment on the meaning of war, the fast changing face of African culture and how war corrupts in the most unlikely and unnatural of ways. Haroun has progressed a great deal since his last picture and he remains one of Francophone African Cinema’s leading talents.
Enjoy this movie and stay tuned for more from CinemAfrica!
Director: Mahamet-Saleh Haroun
Release Date: 23 September 2010