A Screaming Man (2010)

07 June 2011

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Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's fourth feature, A Screaming Man (Un homme qui crie) is a sensitive and powerful drama that depicts the kind of personal and familial betrayal, as well as gutwrenching grief, that can result from a desperate economic plight. Here, the particular is grounded by the universal.

Set during the onset of one of Chad's civil wars, the film tells the tale of Adam (Youssouf Djaoro) and his son Abdel (Diouc Koma); the former has been a pool attendant at a hotel for 30 years, while the latter is his assistant. When the hotel comes under new management and is privatised, the staff's worst fears are confirmed: Adam's friend, a chef, loses his job, while cuts are made elsewhere, resulting in Adam being demoted to gatekeeper while Abdel becomes the sole pool attendant.

Adam is pressured by district chief Ahmat (Emile Abossolo M'bo) to show his loyalty to government troops against a rebel uprising with monetary donations; alienated by his new work and becoming increasingly desperate in financial terms, Adam tells Ahmat that it isn't that he won't pay him, it's that he can't pay him. But objective factors weigh heavy on Adam. As civil war nears his region, he resorts to the one option Ahmat suggested: he has his son Abdel conscripted, against his will. When soldiers arrive to escort Abdel away, the latter's mother Mariam (Hadjé Fatimé N'Goua) pleads for Adam to intervene. He remains silent.

At this point in the film, there has already been a lot of ground covered; in emotional terms, though, it might only be its starting point. In A Screaming Man, information accumulates subtly; we are not afforded access to Adam's internal reasoning - his actions instead seem governed by events around him. While the film seems light on conventional psychological probing, its approach to character is on the contrary admirable and honest.

To writer/director Haroun's credit, for instance, the narrative retains Adam's viewpoint even when his actions - betraying his own son - risk alienating audiences. This, with the film's gentle incrementum and Youssouf Djaoro's winning performance, lends the film a complexity, one whereby any notion of a nebulous morality, or a sense of "right" and "wrong", is stumped by the often crippling contradictions at work under capitalism: workers divided against one another, plunged in competition with one another, and so on. Crucially, Adam's betrayal of Abdel is both selfish and plausible; and his decision in the final act of the film to mend his wrongdoing is all the more agonising as a result.

Haroun directs with an engrossing restraint. Close-ups are used minimally and effectively. Shot lengths vary, but no scene seems unreasonably stylistic; Haroun retains focus on his material. Most interesting is his decision not to specify which of Chad's uprisings or civil wars the film takes place in; references are made through television broadcasts and radio reports.

The suggestion is that this particular story could be told using several recurring episodes of Chad's recent history as a general framework. Political complexities notwithstanding, the human costs remain. Tellingly, the violence itself seems to be only a faintly dangerous threat in comparison to the more vivid and material horror of one's personal grief and familial devastation in the face of privatisation and other systemic evils - evils from which civil war has necessarily stemmed in the first place.