Adam (Youssouf Djaoro) and his son Abdel (Dioucounda Koma) work in a hotel in Chad. War is raging around them; it's one of many rebel attempts to overthrow the government. The hotel is unstable too: with privatization, the new Asian owners are firing staff with efficiency in mind, overlooking employees who've offered them years of loyal service. Adam—a former swimming champion and the country's first pool attendant—can't bear to be parted from his pool, and when downsizing happens his relationship with Abdel suffers attendantly. Heavily allegorical, this beautifully shot film plays something like what you'd expect from a filmmaker born in Chad but trained in France and influenced by Ozu. Formal assurance aside, the crudity of A Screaming Man's dramatic construction—as blunt as the title—becomes increasingly apparent after the first half-hour. The ideal audience will be interested both in arthouse cinema and the on-the-ground realities of Chad's politics (or will have a willingness to learn). Regrettably, this is almost certainly a small crowd.
Well-traveled cinematographer Laurent Brunet (whose work includes collaborations with Israeli filmmakers Amos Gitai and Keren Yedaya, as well as winning a Cesar for French-Belgian co-production Séraphine) takes in Adam's world with a distanced gaze—not to manipulate viewers, as director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun has explained, but with the kind of careful compositions that keep viewer attention, even when nothing much is happening. The first half hour suggests, rather than erupts. Adam and Abdel work at a leisurely pace by the pool. The occasional droning helicopter can be heard in the distance and the threat of imminent violence is latent, but mostly the two enjoy their jobs, keeping the pool clean and teaching children how to sing.
Racial tensions and class divides are immediately evident: this is no longer the era of French colonial rule, but the hotel's guests, by and large, are nice French people. Racism (or even bad manners) is no longer in effect, but economic neocolonialism seems to be. Yet it's still a relative oasis from the ever-present threat of civil war, one to which Adam and his coworkers desperately cling. Even after veteran cook David (Marius Yelolo) is curtly dismissed and temporarily hospitalized, he confesses, "Sometimes I miss the hotel."
Firings occur, and it's best not to spoil what comes next. Haroun's visuals remain hypnotic, whether following a motorcycle's lights as they disappear behind a truck, or simply observing the color-corrected pale beiges of the hotel's space. As the film deals further with privatization, the dramatics grow cartoonish and direct. Adam, used to communing with a local mutt during breaks, has his sojourn rudely interrupted by the newly hired cook, who officiously shoos the dog away as a dirty mutt, and whose girth then collapses a bench.
It's a crude way of introducing the idea of sudden and dramatic change. The dialogue slowly becomes purely presentational. "I don't recognize you anymore," Adam's wife Mariam (Hadje Fatime Ngoua) tells him. "It's not me that's changed," he replies. "It's the world that's changed." Elsewhere the metaphors are even grosser: "I'm sick and tired of this filthy job they make me do," a strong-arm "recruiter" for the government army confesses. "Excuse me, I have to go to the toilet." As the tragedy and allegory of the story grows blunter, so does the skill of its presentation. The first half-hour is as evocative as (and more specific than) Claire Denis' White Material, a similarly broad treatment of post-colonial chaos. The rest, sadly, falls apart, but Haroun's formal skill confirms his continual promise.
Distributor: Film Movement
Cast: Youssouf Djaoro, Dioucounda Koma, Emil Abossolo M'Bo, Hadje Fatime Ngoua, Marius Yelolo and Heling Li
Director/Screenwriters: Mahamet-Saleh Haroun
Producers: Florence Stern
Running time: 92 min.
Release date: April 13 NY