A Screaming Man

A Screaming Man

Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Soda Pictures / Film Movement 

Release date: May 13th 2011
Certificate (UK): PG
Running time: 92 minutes

Original language: French, Arabic
Country of origin: Chad, France, Belgium
Year of production: 2010

Director/Writer: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Producer: Florence Stern

Cast: Youssouf Djaoro, Dioucounda Koma and Emile Abossolo M’bo

Twofold from the title, A Screaming Man (Un Homme Qui Crie) looks like a quiet, unostentatious film. It seems to record incidents, extraordinary and commonplace alike, with the disinterested neutrality of a good documentary. But get a little closer and you’ll notice that this modest fiction is latticed with deep veins of allegorical meaning – and its cool exterior is searing to the touch.

Set in Chad at the outset of its most recent (and ongoing) civil war, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Cannes Jury Prize winner tells the story of Adam Ousmane and his son, Abdal, both pool attendants at a luxury hotel, as their lives and livelihoods are threatened by conflict and privatisation.

A Screaming Man

Adam, called ‘Champion’ by his countless friends in tribute to a successful swimming career, is proud to have a job considered relatively prestigious in the poor African country, and passes the working day together with Abdal in peace and laughter under the radiant Saharan sun.

Even the poverty of their domestic conditions cannot divert from the paradisiacal life at the poolside of a world of inaccessible privilege. But when the hotel is privatised, cost-cutting by the new (Chinese) owner sees Ousmane senior demoted to gatekeeper, with Abdal taking on sole responsibility for the pool.

The perverse cruelty- or pitiless indifference- of inducing the son to depose his father points to some symbolic content here. The disruption of “natural” lineage, i.e. of family (often royal) succession, was invariably taken to herald widespread chaos in Greek and Renaissance tragedies. And generally when treachery comes from within the family all hell breaks loose.

A Screaming Man

In this case the ruthlessness of (perhaps not specifically Chinese) economic imperialism in Africa is therefore connected to a schism in Chadian cultural heredity which has turned sons against fathers and vice versa.

But this is all suggested with such subtlety, such priority of the personal and dramatic over the general and figurative, that all we really see is Adam grimacing in silence. For him, whose identity depends to an uncommon degree on his working life, it is a particularly terrible blow. He is speechless with desperation.

Completing his unhappiness, an aggressive petition for money to the support government troops finds him repeatedly penniless. The failure to contribute is met with suspicion and intimidation, and ‘Champion’, so affectionately thought of before, is ostracised by the community. It is surely only this isolation which makes possible what follows.

A Screaming Man

In festering silence he devises (though this or any such word implies too much machination) a monstrous solution to both problems, a solution that we only recognise as his after Adam is stricken with remorse. It is the kind of spontaneous crime that an otherwise good person commits under psychological duress and regrets immediately.

The civil conflict is not much more than a background for most of the film until Adam’s perfidious deed brings it, all too literally, home.

Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has said that “a warring mentality” is hereditary, and he identifies A Screaming Man as an allegory for the chronic conflict in his homeland, which has seen hostilities persist across four civil wars and 27 of the past 46 years.

A Screaming Man

To draw specific meaning out of the discrete metaphorical capillaries running through the film is difficult without a serviceable knowledge of Chadian history; but you will get sufficient sense of something meaningfully whispered to appreciate the brilliant ways in which it is.

Water, for example, is a recurring symbol. To understand its significance you need to know a few of things about Chad. First: that it is landlocked and right at the centre of Africa. Second: it is therefore very far from the sea and mostly desert, earning it the epithet “the dead heart of Africa”. And third: that it is named after a lake.

A Screaming Man

Water is important to this arid state. So when Adam and Abdel are playing in the pool in the opening sequence, it is with the profound joy of respite from historical drought that they do so. When Adam and his wife devour a watermelon, it is a sumptuous jubilant event which takes precedence over the gruesome scenes of violence on the evening news. And when Lake Chad comes into view in the closing sequence- well, I’ll leave that one to you.

If anything lets the film down it’s this localism- and perhaps a sort of narrative overconfidence, both of which might confuse and bore a passive audience. But these are harsh criticisms, because A Screaming Man is a thematic painting of a movie which shows rather than tells its story. One scene follows another in a sense greater than plot, like colours juxtaposed in an abstract painting. Its detail and sophistication, rather than any general appeal, are why it most certainly merited its Jury Prize at Cannes last year.

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