Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bye Bye Africa

1998, Chad/France, directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun

Like Abderrahmane Sissako's La Vie sur terre, Mahamat Saleh Haroun's first feature narrates a journey home, from France to Chad in this case, and as in Sissako's film the line between truth and fiction is often rather blurred. Both directors play characters named after themselves, men who are reconnecting with family and the rhythms of life in their homelands, while the voiceover narration teases out some of the difficulties of life as an exile; both films even include quotations from the same writer, Aimé Césaire. Given the similarities of approach and tone, it's no surprise that Sissako ended up among the producers of Haroun's subsequent features, Abouna and Daratt.

Haroun's film has a multi-layered narrative in which he simultaneously depicts himself as a director making a film - entitled Bye Bye Africa - complete with casting calls and attempts to persuade producers to sign on to the enterprise, while also conducting apparently "real" interviews with people in Chad, with a particular focus on their experiences of cinema. Early in the film, Haroun's father comments to his son that "your films are for the whites", and that they aren't even distributed in Chad. This is a dilemma faced by almost all African filmmakers: faced with what seems the impossibility of showing their work on the African continent, they are sometimes seen to be unwilling, rather than unable, to do so, and Haroun's filmmaking efforts - in this film - seem designed to reverse that trend.

The interviews explore the destruction of the cinema exhibition industry in Chad, through a long civil war and the systematic lack of investment by overseas distributors - a lack of investment that essentially killed the theatrical business, since consumers were ultimately unwilling to suffer the dreadful projection conditions. There's a sadness around the memories of old movie theatres in N'Djamena - the Normandie, for instance - which are, these days, tumbledown or bullet-ridden, and when they operate at all show scratchy old prints of cheap action flicks.

The documentary aspects of the film succeed to a greater degree than the fictional story interwoven with the interviews. While that story serves as a means for Haroun to explore some of his own feelings about his status as a returning exile, there's a current of melodrama that proves distracting. When Haroun simply turns his camera loose, Bye Bye Africa captures, to a sometimes remarkable degree, the texture of N'Djamena life, the sounds and rhythms of the streets, while the interactions with family are understated and touching; Haroun chooses not, for instance, to depict an emotional reunion with his father, but cuts instead to a scene where the two men quietly drink tea together, the reunion enacted offscreen.

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