Declan Tan reviews Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s third film
Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s third cinematic feature, sparse and emotionally kinetic, tells the modern-day allegorical tale of a Chadian man, Adam (Youssouf Djaoro); once unchangeable by the world, and content in his life, while seemingly devoted to his family (but more so his past), who begins to disintegrate as a result of pressures outside his usually taut control; forces which jolt him out of his still-water complacency.
Adam is a former swimming champion, now plunged in an altogether different life as a pool attendant at a plush N’Djamena hotel. When Chinese owners eventually take over, he loses his job and is replaced by his only son, Abdel (Dioucounda Koma). It is a decision that ruins him, thrusting him into taciturn, brooding envy and bed-ridden depression, all neatly photographed by the camera of Laurent Brunet (Sèraphine, Or, Avanim).
“Champ”, as he is also known, relegated to gatekeeper, sits upright in a chair by the entrance to the hotel, occasionally lifting the barrier by hand for ungrateful guests in large cars. Slow-burning shots close up on Adam’s face as he sits quietly resigned to his fate, albeit silently screaming. Djaoro convincingly portrays the half-broken man, with steely, often-glazed eyes staring intensely at nothing, all without saying very much.
He is a man of inaction and few words; unable to relinquish the pride and satisfaction that his status had afforded him and, still obsessed by the pool, he forgets his love for all else. At the turning point of the narrative, he watches furtively from his room as his son is forcefully abducted and drafted into the army, to fight rebels in the ongoing civil war, and he hides, pretending he does not see.
He says at one point: “I did not change, the world changed”, and that is his central trait; after spending 30 years attending the pool, chatting now and then with his friend the cook, he has been left with no desire or will to act, only wanting to live as he is, stuck in time, and stubborn to change.
Haroun’s ideas gently take shape. The film opens and ends with both Adam and Abdel in water. Adam gradually emerges from the depths of his own self-satisfaction, his contentedness with him and his son’s future. Abdel is often arrogant and showy, impressing his pregnant girlfriend and his co-workers. But Adam fails to recognise himself in Abdel, his younger reflection, and resents the loss of his position. When his son is taken, he resumes his old job, going back to maintaining the pool; the symbol of his current state. But he does not allow any of it to change, or improve. It is only maintenance. His life and the job are all about maintenance, resistance to change in that still body of water; his pool and his existence.
He says: “The pool is my life”. Stuck in the shadow of a hotel, an oasis in the desert, unchanging, unmoving, always the same volume, the same level of arrogant contentedness. It is a comfort he must return to. His earlier victories reflected back at him in the hotel pool’s water. But Haroun’s near-flawless film avoids becoming a political diatribe, telling a story focussed on its central themes, but unafraid to confront the reality of the situation. Adam is harangued by the local authorities to cough-up contributions to the war effort, so his son is taken – war reports constantly crackle through on the radio, or on television, during mundane moments sitting by the pool or eating at home. Haroun’s attitude toward elders and their repressed youth recalls Haneke’s Das Weisse Band in its detached observation of events, allowing space for thought in its telling, and consistently rich in its vision.
A Screaming Man is book-ended with a final scene, a coda where again water plays a part, as both Adam and his son are in the river but in different circumstances than before. What Adam fails to realise at the opening of the film and throughout, before this conclusion, is that both he and Abdel occupy the same space in life, the same body of water, and so they both must move with it; and perhaps there’s a message in there, somewhere.