Notes: Daratt dir. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

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I wrote about this movie sometime last year and then forgot I wrote anything. I really liked this movie but I’m not sure about these thoughts anymore. I don’t know if I engage with it like this now but I might as well share.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is a Chadian filmmaker, born 1960 in Abéché, Chad. He studied cinema in Paris, journalism in Bordeaux and began making films in his home country in 1995. One of Haroun’s goals as a filmmaker is to share intimate portraits of his little known homeland, a crucial mission that if abandoned only leaves, as Haroun says, “a colonization by images.”

The cinema of Chad is only a few decades old. Its first feature film was made in 1966 by director Edouard Sailly, only 6 years after Chad became a nation independent of France. This new nation was ruled by an authoritarian force of southerner Tombalbaye and his Chadian Progressive Party, who hoped to squash any opposing political parties, religions or tribes. Three decades of warfare and invasions later, a semblance of peace was restored when Idriss Deby marched N’djamena and forced Habre out of the country. In 1998 a new rebellion broke out in northern Chad and escalated throughout 2000 until a peace agreement was signed in 2002 between the government and the rebels. However this peace treaty did little as the Darfur crisis arose, a proxy war that continues and worsens even as peace treaties continue to be agreed upon.

Despite the power struggle and turmoil within the state, Chad’s cinema has slowly blossomed through the turmoil. The Normandy, Chad’s only cinema in the capital city of N’djamena, opened again in 2011 after thirty years of closure, while a film school is well under development thanks to Haroun. Along with his contemporaries Zara Mahamat Yacoub, Issa Serge Coelo and Abakar Chene Massar, Mahamat Saleh Haroun continues to create a lens into his home country to share intimate and never before seen portraits of culture, such as in Daratt/Dry Season (2006). The film was co-produced by Mauritanian filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissako, illustrating the fascination of storytelling intersection for both filmmakers, as both favor a more impressionistic narrative. This makes contextual details of the characters or plot not as crucial as allowing the story to run its course without clumsy expository interruption. Often, Western storytelling styles feel folklore-based: everything must be thoroughly explained or else the audience feels as if the ‘narrative equation’ is lacking. It becomes a sort of story arithmetic to make the audience feel clever for resolving the details, minus the satisfaction.

The film uncovers the deep-seated cycle of grief and violence between fathers and sons torn apart by war, the aftermath of civil unrest leaving physical and psychological scars on generation after generation. The film opens on Atim (played by Ali Bacha Barkaï) and his grandfather listening to the Chadian government as it issues amnesty for war criminals of the nearly 40 year long civil war. Within the first few minutes after this radio announcement we hear gunfire, frantic running and a scattered pile of abandoned sandals in front of Atim’s home, a brief scene that is never rightfully justified. Violence is as swift and unchecked as any force of nature. The perpetually looming neocolonialist threat serves as a constant backdrop while Atim obeys his grandfather’s command to kill Atim’s father’s murderer, a father he never knew. Although the grandfather’s pain is palpably tired and strained, he steadfastly holds onto this grudge as it whittles his soul down to its rawest form and withers him to the bone, as war and loss often do.

Instead of having the vengeance of a brutal killer, Atim “the orphan” is just a young man forced to honor a familial obligation. The civil unrest and dry season of Chad makes for an uneasy, brittle environment, while the few outside interactions are twinged with distrust, desperation, and the potential to become volatile. Many of these elliptical interactions offer clever insight into Atim’s personality and way of reaching resolution.

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At one point earlier in the film, Atim runs into a soldier who waves a gun in his face mockingly. Towards the end of the film they meet again, this time with the soldier drunk and bumbling across a bridge. Atim pretends to relieve himself next to the inebriated soldier peeing on a wall, before swiftly knocking the soldier out with a stick and taking his gun. For Atim, this could be a step forward in his mission, killing a disrespectful man who obviously has no respect for the lives of those around him. However, Haroun cuts away and leaves this brief scene permanently ‘incomplete’. Will Atim succumb to the disease of violence that has permeated and destroyed his father and grandfather, or will he inoculate himself with compassion and forgiveness? All of these small instances where Atim can choose to retaliate or relent are cut short before we can see the choice he makes, allowing us to question his motives and also reflect on our own perception of violence and vengeance. The ominous absence of his decisions, coupled with the resentful anger that Atim struggles to conceal haunts us until the very end of the film.

Upon meeting his father’s killer, Nassara (played by Youssouf Djaroro), Atim is unsettled. Rather than being some bloodthirsty war criminal thats easy to put a bullet in, Nassara is a devout Muslim baker who uses a voice box to speak and lives with his young pregnant wife, Aïcha. Atim slowly moves into Nassara’s life, eventually becoming the baker’s apprentice but never speaking more than a few words to him and offering nothing but cold glares, despite Nassara’s mentorship and attempts to grow closer to the boy. Regardless, Nassara finds himself developing a deep fatherly affection for the young man, even to the point of calling him ‘son’. Atim reacts with anger and disgust, offering no explanation to Nassara for his reactions. Atim continues helping Nassara, but remains icy towards the man, making both of them dubious and fearful of the other’s motives. The tension between Atim and Nassara remains heavy as they go about their work, with their cautious conversations peppered by angry short bursts of uncertain hostility. Atim becomes progressively more unsure and upset as he begins to truly see the kind of man Nassara is; a man who displays tenderness towards the children in his town and even to the bread he bakes. Atim loses sight of the murderous man he wants Nassara to be.

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The guarded heaviness of Nassara is so easily conveyed by Djaoro, despite his character’s usual silence due to a war injury that now requires the use of a voice box. Nassara moves through his life in a pattern of quiet guilt and pent up regret. Fortunately this is not a constant, and it is truly moving to witness the rare instance he shows vulnerability. The stress culminates when Atim realizes he will not be able to kill Nassara and prepares to leave the man’s home to return home to his grandfather. The decision to break the cycle of violence is a powerful one, denying the vehement influence of the larger power struggle around him and his own cultural traditions. Haroun never differentiates between the war or Atim separately, due to their close and intertwined relationship. Even in the smallest of motifs, this is shown through Atim’s discarded baggy camo jacket, the angry voices echoing from the radio demanding the blood of the pardoned war criminals and his interactions with others that possess an air of subtle militant aggression.

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Furthermore, the off-putting limited visibility of women in this film is to be expected from a male filmmaker exploring a father-son dynamic. Nassara’s wife Aïcha functions mostly as a tension diffuser between the two men that allows a few brief playful moments, specifically between her and Atim. These actions — not quite romantic, yet not exactly motherly either — fragment the melancholy anxiety that swallows the entirety of the narrative. However, Atim and Nassara’s relationship undermines a certain form of traditional masculinity through the characters passivity and vulnerability, while still causing collateral damage through the form of Aïcha’s forced marriage and physical beatings that lead to her miscarriage.

Nassara’s vulnerability is crucial for Atim to show mercy, overlook these transgressions and realize that the consequences of his actions will either escape or contribute to the circle of violence that claimed his father. When Atim grapples with his initial attempt at killing Nassara, we get a close shot of his concerned face and anxious eyes at the center of the screen, as if he is looking at Nassara while simultaneously looking at the audience.

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Atim’s hand shakes while his eyes water. Ending another’s life involves the painful process of shutting down parts of your own humanity and praying it comes back just as bright when its all over, but knowing it will not. Atim realizes he cannot and will not be complicit in the cycle of violent horror around him. Haroun singlehandedly delivers this moral terror to the audience with painful clarity. Atim comes into his own in the way he chooses to and is not depicted less or more than because of it.

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Many of Haroun’s films seem untouched by a brutish authorial hand, with nothing overly staged, composed or long-winded. What’s especially astounding about many of Haroun’s films is while they are relatively slow ruminative films, there are places where stillness makes up an integral part of the film’s lasting impression. Haroun’s camera is patient and doesn’t fear the passing of time or a stretch of silence, which creates a calm openness where his actors are allowed to perform in beautifully subtle ways, while the audience looks on to thoroughly appreciate the emotional depth of these characters.

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Visually the film is lean and open, the aesthetic blocking and spacious shots juxtaposed against the intimate close ups allow for intensity in the way the camera wavers in tight perilous spaces. Due to Haroun’s film education in France, there is an obvious stylistic blend of French New Wave and influence from Ozu, a filmmaker he deeply favors, due to the lack of artifice, austerity and visual repetition in his compositions. Like his other films Abouna and A Screaming Man, Haroun concerns himself with the relationship of lost fathers and lost sons in the face of war and presents their stories without judgement. Haroun himself was a teenager when he was injured in the war, forcing him to leave his country and his parents. While shooting Daratt, he also experienced violence at the hands of rebels, who left 300 dead in the wake of the attack. Because of his experiences, his deep understanding of war’s effect on families comes through sincerely and explicitly.

This Chadian filmmaker shows us vengeance in a light that is often not displayed, a dispassionate coldness that needles the very core of person, a coldness that exhausts and emotionally emaciates both killer and victim and leaves them raw with guilt and grief. Even more astounding is the amazing feat of communicating themes of torment and anxiety to the viewer, without ever showing violence on screen. This is remarkable based on the actual violent conditions the film was shot under. Daratt shows the real pain of enacting revenge, the toll that brutality and death takes on wives and unborn children, fathers and sons. We see the emotional decay of a guilt-ridden mind and the scars left from taking the lives of others. Yet somehow, it is clear that the influence of mercy is not to heal, but to sublimate the violence and hate that washes over them all. Atim’s mercy breaks the cycle of violence. Haroun shows us clearly that there is no need for forgiveness in mercy, for there is peace in moving on.

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