Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: ‘Tragedy needs a strong storyteller, otherwise it doesn’t exist’

With his latest film, A Season in France, in UK cinemas, the Chadian filmmaker discusses cinematic representation of the refugee crisis and ‘hierarchies’ of tragedy.

Matthew Thrift

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

For 25 years now, across fiction and documentary, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has been the lone cinematic voice of Chad heard in the west, one of the very few African filmmakers to have their work distributed in Europe. Until recently, Haroun had returned to his native country to shoot each of his films. His last fiction feature, Grigris (2013), debuted in the Cannes competition and was the first film to receive production funds from the Chadian government.

His latest, A Season in France, sees Haroun working for the first time in his adopted Paris, where he emigrated in 1982. It’s a film that tackles the refugee crisis, albeit with an atypical, microcosmic approach to questions of national and individual empathy.

Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney), a former teacher, has fled his hometown of Bangui in the Central African Republic with his two children and younger brother Etienne, following the murder of his wife by armed militia. In a relationship with Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire), a French native and herself the daughter of Polish immigrants, he’s playacting stability for the sake of his kids, while awaiting a decision from the court of asylum on his right to remain.

With A Season in France belatedly reaching UK cinemas, following its premiere at Toronto back in 2017, we sat down with the filmmaker during his visit to London last week to discuss working in France, cinematic representation of the refugee crisis and ‘hierarchies’ of tragedy.

A Season in France (2017)

A Season in France (2017)

You’ve lived in France for nearly 40 years now, but all your previous films have all been made in Chad. What made you decide that now was the right time to make a film in your adopted country?

I made a comedy for Arte, but it was a TV movie called Sex, Okra and Salted Butter. This is my first one for cinemas. I felt involved with this subject, as a refugee myself. It’s part of my memory. A lot of people talk about the subject, but they don’t know anything about it. All these other films have been made from an outside perspective; they’re only interested in the spectacle: of crossing the sea without knowing how to swim, of walking across a desert. I wanted to tell a story from an insider’s point of view. It’s not about spectacle. The spectacular part of this journey from Africa to Europe doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in the place given to these people when they arrive in Europe. I know a lot of refugees, and I wanted to tell of their intimate lives, the ones we can’t see.

Did you come to France with your family back in 1982?

No, I arrived alone. I left my family because I wanted to study cinema, which is why I came to Paris. I remember I didn’t know anyone. I had an address from a friend of my cinema school. I was like a nomad.

Did you have any experience with the kind of immigration systems depicted in the film?

It’s changed a little bit. I made an investigation into the National Court of Asylum in Montreuil, not far from Paris. You’d see these people fall down when they got their results, just like in the film. Every week you’d have two or three guards, you’d even have firemen there because all these people feel their lives have been broken. I’d seen it and wanted to show it, because I didn’t think I’d ever seen the daily life of a refugee in Europe quite like that.

Is Abbas’s story based on that of any particular individual?

No, it’s a mix of stories. I met a guy who was a teacher in his own country, and I got the idea of transmitting something through books. It was like a lost territory for these two brothers; they’re trying to keep their relationship somehow, and that was their way. Books are also a way of children receiving stories, stories of a paradise lost.

A Season in France (2017)

A Season in France (2017)

Bangui, in the Central African Republic, isn’t somewhere that gets much coverage in the western press.

That’s right. There’s a kind of competition, a hierarchy when it comes to tragedy. When the horror is spectacular, there’s a need to show it. But for some tragedies there is no spectacle, it’s just 10 people killed, and then tomorrow 10 more people, and it’s seen as nothing. Tragedy needs a strong storyteller, otherwise it doesn’t exist.

The film is especially interesting in its absences: of the journey, of the asylum process. It keeps the focus on the humanity of the characters themselves.

Absolutely. I wanted to be with them, to give them a face. It’s like I wanted everyone who helped in the conception of the film to bring a part of their memory and their story. Usually we talk about ‘immigrants’, but immigrants don’t all have the same face or the same story. They’re different. When it came to the absence of the administration, I didn’t want to show it because then you would judge it. I didn’t want to say that the system is bad, I just wanted to say that it’s a system. It’s not the subject here. These people don’t have anyone facing them; the administration doesn’t have a face, so that’s another absence. Also, the absence of the mother and a stable place to live. All these absences create instability, which is what refugee life is, moving all the time. If you keep moving, there is hope.

Each member of the family seems to be processing their situation in different ways.

For the children, they just accept without judgment. For Abbas, he was a teacher, and now he’s just nothing. In his traditional, cultural way of thinking, he’s a man, and he’s supposed to be helping. He’s in a complex situation, and he has to adapt, which is a process. Being a refugee is about adapting yourself to a new way of living and thinking. It’s not easy, it’s a struggle against yourself. For the children it’s different. Tragedy to them is just a new language. They may be traumatised, but it might not show itself until later.


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