Mahamat-Saleh Haroun was born in Chad but fled the country in the 80’s due to the civil war conflict and relocated in France, where he worked as a journalist before studying at the Conservatoire Libre du Cinéma in Paris. Following in the tradition of African filmmakers from Senegalese Ousmane Sembène to Mauritanian Abderrahmane Sissako, Haroun uses deceptively quiet surfaces, where his films obscure the underlying tensions of the region, perhaps most beautifully expressed in his acclaimed War Trilogy. Returning to Chad to make films, the locations could be anywhere in Africa, as they always reflect a postcolonial African society, where in dealing with poverty or family loss, people are often uprooted and transplanted away from their homelands, struggling to find their place in the modern world. Haroun contrasts the moral compromises that result from the challenges of living in the fast-paced urban life against the distant rural communities that continue to maintain a link to the traditional past. After concluding his War Trilogy with 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #2 A Screaming Man (Un homme qui crie), winner of the Jury prize at Cannes, Haroun has chosen an odd, almost eccentric character in Grigris (Souleymane Démé), where in the riveting opening sequence, we hear a cramped nightclub audience come to life with applause as they chant his name: “Grigris! Grigris!” The man does not disappoint once he hits the dance floor, though he has a noticeably imbalanced walk due to a nearly useless crippled left leg. His flexibility, however, is abnormal, as is his upper body strength, which allows him to do high-powered gymnastic moves where his body bends and moves in ways that it shouldn’t, but his choreographed performance is highly entertaining, enabling him to earn a few dollars on the side.
Grigris works as an assistant in a storefront photography studio owned by his uncle (Marius Yelolo), often chided by his wife for smoking too much, where there’s a wry humor to their family relationship. When the stunningly beautiful Mimi (Anaïs Monory) steps into the studio looking for fashion model photos, it’s amusing how the eyes of each man on the street follows her every move, but none more than Grigris, who thinks she’s the most beautiful women he’s ever seen in his life. Accordingly, he treats her with kindness, and catches her eye dancing in the nightclub she frequents, as little does he know she works as a bar hostess. Though she appears way out of his league, she takes to him and they become friends, as he views her differently than all the others who see her only as a commodity. We watch him rehearse his act on an abandoned stage, where he has dance aspirations, hoping one day it might take him somewhere. But his dreams are short-lived when his uncle ends up in the hospital with a whopping medical bill. Desperate to earn fast money, he turns to the local crime boss for a job, Moussa (Cyril Gueï), a gun-toting gangster that travels with hired thugs, but also a guy that smuggles black market gasoline over the border to Cameroon, which involves swimming across the river carrying the gasoline behind in large plastic containers that are tied together. Grigris nearly drowns in his first attempt, drawing the ire of his boss, who needs guys he can depend on, contemptuously throwing Grigris back out onto the street. But he begs for another chance, claiming he can drive a truck, and is surprisingly successful in outmaneuvering the chasing police.
When Grigris double-crosses his boss, selling the gasoline to others, then purposefully injuring himself in an attempt to explain he was robbed and beaten up by the cops, Moussa and his troops are furious, but he secretly brings all the cash to his uncle in the hospital. But guys like Moussa aren’t ones to just let things go, reminiscent of the brutally violent, paramilitary militia of Papa Doc’s Tonton Macoute in Haiti, marauding gangs with guns that carry out indiscriminate threats and murders in a vicious reign of terror. After an amusing Muslim ritual in front of Moussa with this thugs all dressed in white robes while wearing dark glasses, Grigris vows, with his hand on the Holy Quran, that he’s telling the truth, but they beat him up afterwards anyway, contending he’s lying, giving him two days to return the money or he’ll be shot. Bleeding profusely, he has only Mimi to turn to, where the two of them go on the run into the outlands to her family’s village in the bush, where they’re greeted with open arms and immediately accepted into the community. In an interesting twist, all the men are away in the fields harvesting crops, so what we see reflects a simplistic rural lifestyle of people living in huts, but also a collective mindset of the women, all dressed in vibrant colors, reflecting a unified spirit. With music by Wasis Diop, brother of the director Djibril Diop Mambety, there is a gentle underlying tone of melancholic tenderness, a softer side that contrasts with the brutally cruel world of the urban male gangsters they’re running from. What governmental structure exists remains unseen and is largely an invisible presence in ordinary people’s lives, while Moussa’s anarchistic gang of thugs are the everyday reality ruling the streets, threatening the safety of everyone. What’s perhaps most devastating in the film is the continuing presence of poverty and the horrendous effect this plays in the decisions made by the characters, who are driven to perform loathsome acts by the surrounding forces of power and corruption. While flowing with poetic naturalism, the film doesn’t have the bracing intensity of his earlier films, but continues to express the splintered disarray left in the wake of postcolonial Africa.