Cinema of West Africa at Home in L.A : An Interview with Mahamat Saleh Haroun

Growing up in Culver City, I always saw the MGM studio near us as a place of make-believe where I could collect autographs of famous movie stars. I knew they made the movies there that I watched every weekend. But it was home, and home was a place of safe daydreams without ambitious goals associated with it.

When I became a teenager and saw Un Chien Andalou, I began to see Movie Mecca as New York and Paris, but now I see they have nothing on us.

Los Angeles this past month had so many events that I could see the world without leaving town. Just a sampling here: German Film Currents,Polish Film Festival, So. African Arts Fest, Satyajit Ray Restored, Pure and Impure: The films of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Gabriel Figueroa Retrospective and The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema which this weekend showed Roberto Gavaldon’s Macario an Oscar-nominated 1959 surrealist Mexican fable. Also showing this weekend alone were A Century of Chinese Cinema at UCLA, the Cambodian documentaryA River Changes Course, Ida’s free documentary series, sci-fi Beyond Fest at the Egyptian Theater, Henri-George Couzot’s La Verite at Red Cat, not to mention Classics from the Cohen Film Colletion: The Rohauer Collection and finally, the early press screenings for the Foreign Language Submissions for the Academy Awards.

Today I write about Africa, West Africa in particular, but even more so Chad, because that is where Mahamat-Saleh Haroun and his film Grigris (Isa: Les Films du Losange, No. America: Film Movement) originate. Grigris premiered in the Cannes Film Festival this year. Haroun also wrote and directed The Screaming Man (Isa: Pyramide, No. America: Film Movement) which won The Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Grigris is playing as part of the Cameras d’Afrique Series at Lacma which I blogged about earlier Here. This showcase of world-changing films is an initiative of Loyola Marymount University Film School, Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Film Program and Film Independent.

The films offer a unique view of Africa in the comfort of our own town. This series includes the 1963 film Borom Sarret by Ousmane Sembene from Senegal, the first film directed by an African to focus on an African filmmaker’s own people. We all know the name of Ousmane Sembene, but rarely have the chance to see his films, though I will never forget the experience of seeing Black Girl in 1966 at the height of our own Civil Rights struggles. It enlightened me about the rest of the world’s own warped (i.e., colonial) view of the Africans in diaspora, a subject being revived in so many films of today.

My most current education on Africa comes from the annual course I teach about the international film business to festival directors from Africa, Asia and Latin America at the Deutsche Welle Akademie in Berlin. I learn about the problems and issues facing a diverse range of festival directors, many of whom are also filmmakers. For example, in a country with no theaters, the film festival is held in the bush and promoted via cel phones which everyone possesses. I was also made alert to the fact that many Africans themselves find European-funded films showing dusty, poverty-stricken but cute kids in torn t-shirts and running barefoot in dirty streets and men wearing the boubou and women balancing baskets on their heads condescending and imbalanced depictions of Africa today.

Mama Kéïta was present to talk about L’Absence and Gaston Kaboré was there with Buud Yam (followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker). Other program highlights included the L.A. premiere of Mille Soleils (A Thousand Suns), Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 French New Wave–inspired Touki Bouki, Idrissa Ouédraogo’s 1990 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner Tilaï (The Law), and the 2013 Fespaco Golden Stallion winner Tey (Today), followed by a Q&A with director Alain Gomis and star Saul Williams.

Seeing these films gave me a feeling of wholeness, from L’Absence, the tail of a prodigal son, returning too long after he was granted an education in France by his fellow countrymen and family who had expected him to return and contribute to his own country’s wellbeing but instead stayed in France where he basically lost his soul, to Buud Yam, a classic hero’s journey by a young man seeking a healer for his sister. The audience and the filmmakers along with their films had a great opportunity to unveil an Africa about which we know too little

Planning to interview Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, I looked up Chad in Wikipedia and read it is what is called a “failed country”. My spirits dropped. But on seeing Grisgris and meeting Haroun and hearing all he had to say, my spirits soared.

Do you know for a fact that a film can change the world? I believe it can, does and is changing the world. So many of my colleagues in the film world are in film because of the same ideal.

The African directors at the series spoke of their films and their passion and they too make films to change the world. Haroun was not the only one who spoke at the African film series, but my conversation with him proved it to me. We spent a good hour discussing his films and his thoughts and development which I will try to summarize here.

It has been a long road for Haroun. When he first returned to Chad from France and made Bye Bye Africa, he was inexperienced and afraid of nothing. You see his chutzpah making Bye Bye Africa as he shoots film of everyone, offending some who believed he was stealing their spirits. He meets his past star who played a woman dying of AIDS whose life has been ruined because the people believe the film was real.

For Haroun, acting is like cooking. You do it for someone you love. Chad was such a difficult country for filming his first film, so he could make mistakes. If you fall down, you just get up and keep going. He had no doubts. It’s a question of love. You feel it; you act it. His non-professional actors do their best and their passion carries them through.

Making his second film was different. There was pressure, especially for him as an actor, to make it good. After A Screaming Man he got a call from Brad Pitt who wanted him as an actor in World War Z and who wanted the lead, but not speaking English put an end to that.

Chad is landlocked country in Central Africa. It is bordered by Libya to the north, Sudan to the east, the Central African Republic to the south, Cameroon and Nigeria to the southwest, and Niger to the west. Because the French colonized it in the 1920s, it is now a “Francophone” country and has more in common with its neighbors in the West and so is considered West African.

Chad had free elections in 2008 and elected President Idriss Déby. The country defeated the Sudanese rebels there. The nation sent troops into Mali and killed Moktar Belmoktar, the Algerian terrorist behind the deadly attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria and withdrew its troops in April of this year saying they were not prepared to fight guerilla warfare. That means money that went to the military can be redirected toward peaceful endeavors. Today they are rebuilding the country which is based on an oil economy which gives it a window of rich opportunity.

Cinema in Chad changed greatly and became a new focal point for the newly elected government when Haroun won the Jury Prize in Cannes for A Screaming Man in 2010 When his debut film Bye Bye Africa (1999), showed the wreck of the country revisited by long-time French exile, he saw theaters which the long civil war and instability had destroyed. He spoke to a woman who swore she would renovate her theater, the Normandie. Bye Bye Africa was a drama but it took place in a documentary setting which looks at the poor state of cinema in the country. After Haroun won the Grand Jury Prize of Cannes, the government allocated $1 million to restore the theater which stands today as a testament to the power of film. It shows 35mm, is digitized and can use satellite transmission. It can buy Hollywood films using digital coding although film distribution rights are still difficult to negotiate. However, the distributor of Django in France arranged for Django to show day and date in Paris and Chad’s capitol city N’Djamena for a minimum guarantee. This was a major event for a country that has gone 30 years without cinema.

The government of Chad began to receive compliments for winning the Jury Prize in Cannes, which is perceived to be as important as the Olympics themselves (It is, in fact, the 2nd largest press event in the world after the Olympics). The world’s perception of Chad and its own perception of itself shifted from being one of the poorest, war-torn and corrupt nations of Africa to one of high stature culturally. And its current Prime Minister Djimrangar Dadnadji, and his government has now allocated $10 million into building a film school which should be finished by 2015. It will be one of the rare film schools in all of Africa and will be the finest in the north, east or west of the entire continent.

The film school is a part of rebuilding the country today. It is also trying to become part of the U.N. Security Council. It is the leading country in Central and West Africa. It is part of the Central African Economic Council (Ceeac).

What these changes mean for Haroun is that he can continue to use film for himself as a platform, the means to objectify and philosophize about conscience and consciousness. As Aimee Caesar was quoted in Bye Bye Africa, Africa needs to articulate its storytelling tradition in new ways and to be visible beyond its own borders. Film shows diversity. Differing points of view and discussions mean the nation can start to play a role on a grander world stage. With the building of a film school, the parliament also voted into law at tax of $.01 per telephone call to go toward artistic activities. This will make a huge difference to the next generation.

When Haroun began making movies he wanted to stop talking about the state of cinema, so he put it into his film, memorialized it and then closed the door on the subject.

You can see Haroun’s own evolution in regards to his treatment of women in Bye Bye Africa to his depiction of them in Grigris. It was not a very flattering portrayal; even in Grigris, the hero does not stand up for the woman he loves when his boss degrades her. However, the film gives a special place to the women in the village as if they were a in a classical Greek Choir. The women change the Story and the two artists’ destiny is changed because of the women.

Grigris is the portrait of a young African artist, but even with talent, the milieu is so difficult and as the eldest, he has to take care of others. This is The Responsibility that kills dreams. Grigris is a cruel portrayal of the young artist. It is a modern story, extending the tradition of oral storytelling.

Although he is not acting in it, it is still an impressionistic self-portrait, as was Bye Bye Africa which was shot in two weeks and won Best First Feature in Venice in 1999. His growth intellectually and emotionally can be measured by watching the two films.

After being selected and awarded at the 66th Festival de Cannes for the remarkable quality of its photography, the film Grigris, by Mahamat Saleh Haroun, supported by the Acp Cultures + Programme, won the Bayard d'Or for best photography at the 28th Festival International Film Francophone de Namur (Fiff) in Belgium. (Read the full list of 28th Fiff Awards : click here.)

Haroun explains that he has many women around him – his mother, his sisters, cousins. In Africa, a man’s role does not include cooking. Cooking is love. But in France he enjoys cooking. Cooking shows trust in those who partake in the making and eating of the meal. No one burns the steak when cooking for one’s mother. Food is essential to Haroun. “If you cook, you can share, you open your doors.”

He told me how he got into movies.

I was 9 years old when I saw my first movie. It was a Bollywood movie and a beautiful lady in it was smiling at the camera. I thought she was smiling at me. The love and happiness I felt watching this made me love cinema.

My dream of cinema was a big ambition. It was not to make small films. I dreamt of expressing an important philosophy of life and of my country in cinema. I did not want to stick just to tradition which is disappearing. But to the eternal which remains. Tradition is not the essential; culture is. For example, in Western society, the meaning of seat number 13 on a plane is not culture, but it is a tradition.

Haroun is leading his generation. In 1965 the civil war was raging in the North. It came to the capital in 1979 and he went to Paris to study cinema in 1981/82. His country was ruled by a dictator who is now in prison to be judged in court for the 40,000 lives taken during the 8 years of war. Reid Brady of the Human Rights Watch and Haroun are now making a documentary about this. Today Haroun travels between France and Chad 5 to 6 times a year. Interestingly, there is not yet a film festival in Chad.

When I asked what was next :

Next is about Indian fashion. Also a young artist. It is based on a true story of a young man in N’Djemena who used to watch Bollywood dvds and has seen more than 1,500 Bollywood films and speaks Hindu as a result. He gets a job at an Indian factory and translates to French and to his African language. He spends eight years there but dreams of becoming an actor in Bollywood. The story brings him to Bombay. That is a good base for a film; a film built on truth and documentary.

I am also making a film in France called A Life in France. I have lived there for 30 years. The film is from the point of view of an immigrant as I am.

Hamoud and I so enjoyed our talk that we are now looking forward to meeting again when he returns here in December! Wouldn’t it be great if his film is one of those shortlisted for the Nomination, or if it actually received the Nomination? Or if it won? How might that then change the world? We will have to wait and see.

About Lmu Sftv

Movie industry moguls helped establish Loyola Marymount University’s (Lmu) current campus on the bluffs above west Los Angeles in the 1920s. By 1964, Lmu was formally teaching film and television curriculum, and in 2001, the School of Film and Television (Sftv) was established as its own entity. Today, Sftv offers students a comprehensive education where mastering technical skills and story is equally important to educating the whole person, including the formation of character and values, meaning and purpose. Sftv offers undergraduate degrees in animation, production, screenwriting, film and television studies and recording arts; and graduate degrees in production, screenwriting and writing and producing for television. The school is one of the few film programs providing students with a completely tapeless model of production and post-production, and Sftv’s animation program is one of the few worldwide that teaches virtual cinematography. Selected alumni include John Bailey, Bob Beemer, Francie Calfo, Brian Helgeland, Francis Lawrence, Lauren Montgomery, Jack Orman, Van Partible and James Wong, among others. Get more information at or

About Film Independent at Lacma

Film Independent at Lacma is a film series produced by Film Independent—the nonprofit arts organization that also produces the Film Independent Spirit Awards and the Los Angeles Film Festival—and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) with presenting sponsor The New York Times and premier sponsor Ovation. The Film Independent at Lacma Film Series is curated by Elvis Mitchell and assistant curator Bernardo Rondeau. The program features classic and contemporary narrative and documentary films; emerging auteurs; international showcases; special guest-curated programs, such as Jason Reitman's acclaimed Live Read series; and conversations with artists, filmmakers, and other special guests. For more information, go to or

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