‘A Screaming Man’ would be sumptuous with a little salt
Directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Written by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
2010, France, Belgium, Chad
A certain school of cinema teaches that holding shots long enough will guarantee critical success and bountiful festival laurels for the poster campaign. Granted, the long take is one of the most electrifying techniques a filmmaker can employ, and this still-thriving stallion is being flogged by those seeking to challenge audiences. Unfortunately for them, they fail to realize that a long take worth its weight in festival gold is anything but a challenge to sit through. Apitchatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul must know this for he crafts shots of mesmerising beauty, none of which are nearly long enough for one to begin speculating on their actual purpose. Mahamat Saleh Haroun, whose A Screaming Man yielded to Joe’s Palme d’Or–winner only to clinch the Jury Prize at Cannes, is some way behind, which isn’t necessarily as huge a criticism as it sounds.
A Paris-based Chadian, Haroun’s cinema is still thematically rooted in his homeland while his style draws upon European influences, which might or might not account for his relative critical success. His 2006 Venice-honoured film Daratt proved, interestingly enough, to be a catalyst for the conception of A Screaming Man. Both films are concerned with Chadian civil wars: the former with a decades old conflict, the latter with the war that began in 2005 and still rages. Escalations during the shooting of Daratt brought production to a standstill, leading Haroun to develop a quiet story about a former national swimming champion whose life – not to mention integrity – is quietly upturned by civil war and…new management.
Played with languorous relish by Larry Davids walk-alike Youssouf Djaoro, the titular character, Adam, works as a pool attendant at a respectable hotel in the country’s capital, with his son Abdel (Diouc Koma) assisting, but mainly fooling around with the ladies. In and around the sun-bathed pool area frequented by Western tourists Adam is king, decked out in white and perenially poker-faced. Then with the arrival of the hotel’s new proprietor he is relegated to hotel gatekeeper while Abdel replaces him in the job he so loves. It also happens that penniless Adam keeps defaulting on his promised monetary contribution to the government-sanctioned “war effort” which demands either donations or volunteers. Adam will do anything to get his old job back, but what he ends up doing reveals him to be a man afraid of change, deeply flawed, spineless even, but painfully sympathetic.
It’s heartening to see an African character that is not purely victim (à la Blood Diamond) or purely villain (à la Blood Diamond), but wholly human. Haroun’s languid shots suggest a man numbed by some deep angst he cannot express, which Djaoro portrays to a tee. The director himself has stated that Adam’s silent scream is directed at God’s own silence, something which is hinted at without resorting to Bergman-esque gravity. It’s equally refreshing to see civil war through the eyes of an individual largely indifferent towards it. Rather than a broad stroke UNICEF approach, Screaming paints a picture of war through fuzzed-out radio snippets, chance conversation, a brief scene of people quietly fleeing. One person’s experience, that’s all. War is simply a bit player in a film more interested in fathers and sons and lovers, the pains of communication, friendship, and the search for a raison d’etre, for dignity. Very little histrionics are on show, perhaps to the point of there just being very little on show at all.
Maybe Haroun would have us contemplate some maelstrom of emotion, ambiguity and occasional humour concealed within the patiently held frames which, by the way, are gorgeous to look at, having a dreamy, washed-out quality enriched by earthy tones and spare but somewhat arch compositions. But at 92 minutes Screaming feels unnecessarily drawn out as do some of the shots and scenes. At the same, it’s hard to pinpoint any clearly redundant moments and there is something strangely essential about the film once it’s reached its tranquilly tragic conclusion. If this were a meal it would look good, taste good, fill you, feel like it was made with care…but might disappoint if you liked feeling full.