Universal humanism – A conversation with Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (b. 1961) is one of Africa`s leading filmmakers.  This year he is one of the special guests at the Films From the South festival and as usual he brings with him a baggage of strong, political messages. 

Av 4. okt 2016

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (b. 1961) is one of Africa`s leading filmmakers.  This year he is one of the special guests at the Films From the South festival and as usual he brings with him a baggage of strong, political messages.  Haroun is one of the directors chosen for the Direcrtors Special Portrait section of the festival.  And we have chosen to screen three of his fims:  the latest one that goes by the name of  Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy, as well as the award winning films:  Abouna and A Screaming Man.

(Read the reviews and buy tickets HERE).

His critically acclaimed film debut, the docudrama Bye Bye Africa (1999), was the first film to be produced in his native Chad. Haroun grew up in Chad, but left the civil war torn inland state towards the end of the `80s and set off for France, where he studied film and worked as a journalist, prior to producing and directing the short film Maral Tanié (1994), which pursues the life of a young Chadian girl, who is married off to a much older man. Thanks to the critically acclaimed sibling drama Abouna (2002), which deals with two young boys’ search for their missing father, Haroum collected a number of awards at lesser-known festivals.  The real breakthrough came with Daratt (2006), which participated in the main competition at the Venezia Biennale in Venice and won no less than five awards, amongst which the UNESCO prize and the jury`s special prize.


Amongst Norwegian cinemagoers, Haroun is best known for A Screaming Man (2010), which was distributed via Arthaus. The film participated in the main competition in Cannes and received the Jury Prize.  He was invited the following year to act as a member of the jury, headed by Robert De Niro, and in 2013 he participated again in the main competition, this time with Grigris.

 (Abouna, trailer)

Last Spring he returned to the Promenade de la Croisette with a documentary film called Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy, which was nominated for L’OEil d’or , which is the equivalent of the  Palme d`Or for documentary films.  Unlike the director`s earlier documentary films, this one is not based on a hearing in a court of law, but delves deep into the individual stories of many who fell victim to Chad`s former president, Hissein Habré, who ruled the country by means of corruption and violence.


Harouns discrete and thought provoking film idioms succeed in portraying various fates in Chad, with warmth and complexity, which contrasts greatly with the way in which the African continent is portrayed in the tabloid press.  In the interview below we get to know more about his admiration of  Charlie Chaplin and Robert Bresson, as well as his constant transition between documentary and fiction.

Truls Foss (TF), Mahamat Saleh Haroun (MSH)

TF: In Abouna (2002) we catch a glimpse of posters of  Jim Jarmusch´s Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and  Charlie Chaplin´s The Kid (1921) when the two main protagonists visit the cinema.  Which filmmakers are you inspired by?

MSH: Charlie Chaplin.  He is, in a way, the father of all filmmakers, the greatest of them all.   I simply love the elegant way in which he relates a story and his effortless absurdity.   Personally, I think that the best way to relate a story is by making as little use as possible of dialogue, in such a way that everyone, irrespective of language and cultural background, can understand.  This is something I strive to achieve; film is about being on the move, film is action, just like life.

Robert Bresson is also amongst the directors I greatly esteem. Bresson´s distilled idioms - the purity of film, is very complex.  In order to achieve such a simple, yet deep expression, it is imperative to be very closely and skilfully acquainted to both the various cinematic techniques and the story one wishes to relate.  I am deeply impressed by the films by the Dardenne brothers, as well as those by Abbas Kiarostami, who recently passed away.  However neither of them have influenced me as much as Chaplin and Bresson.

(Grisgris, trailer)


TF: How have your studies and life in France influenced the way you produce films? 

MSH: I am of the opinion that one`s sensitivity to a particular situation is what plays the greatest deciding role and the latter is closely linked to one`s childhood and the source of which is a question regarding our memories.  I think that all those who work with art are very influenced by that early stage of their lives.  Since I was born and brought up in Chad, I imagine I have a rhythm, a temperament and a philosophy that finds its roots in my homeland, although, at this point in time, I have actually lived longer in France.  It is important that we are loyal to our own experiences as they define the way we express ourselves.

TF: A Screaming Man has strong roots in Chadian culture, however the story has a universal flavour, unlike the negative way Africa is often portrayed in the tabloid media. 

MSH: It is of utmost importance for me, as an African filmmaker, that Africans, and people of all other nationalities, for that matter, are not portrayed as foreigners, as though they were aliens from another planet – Africans are, after all, not from Mars.  I wish to stress that we are all part of the same humanity and aim to boost the idea of a  universal humanism.  The way Africa is portrayed in film and in the media is a often a cliché, which I attempt to change.  It is similar to having a painting that has not been hung straight in my living room, I simply have to straighten it up!  

TF: There are many recurrent themes in your films, chiefly the political situation in Chad, which is either in the foreground of the film or brewing under the surface.  Are films an appropriate medium to discuss a political topic?    

MSH:  Well, I maintain that film contributes towards informing people about the world out there and, in a way, it reduces xenophobia.  For example, I believe film contributed towards what we acknowledged as the Arab Spring, which was experienced by some of the greatest film producing countries in Africa.  People from countries with a rich film culture are more open and connected to the rest of the world.  

Creating something is liberating  – self-liberating.  However one does not create for the mere pleasure of it, or in order to entertain; the aim is to provoke thought and reflection on a particular topic, on a higher level.

TF: Yes, films which remain in our thoughts, long after the viewing, which touch and provoke, are those I appreciate most as a spectator. 

MSH: When an image from a film remains on your retina for several days in a row, which you carry around with you and are unable to forget and which causes you to reflect….well, if one manages to create one single scene or a single shot of such a calibre, then one has managed to create something considerable.  Films that give the impression that they were created on a production line, which are hard to distinguish from each other, which is often the case when one talks about Hollywood productions, are what constitute superficiality.  At its best, film should inspire us to reach new dimensions and become better individuals.

 (Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy, excerpt)


TF: In your latest documentary Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy, you confront both a victim and a former soldier of the feared dictator`s – a similar technique was also made use of in Joshua Oppenheimer´s The Look of Silence (2014).

MSH: I wished to discover if it was possible to share the same room after having carried out atrocities or experienced such brutal or tragic experiences.  Is there room for forgiveness? 

In the case that one does not manage to forgive, is it still possible to live side by side?  In the case of people from the same country, one is, to a certain extent, forced to accept such a situation.

It is a question of time and space and film is precisely that, time and space, so what can I convey by placing both the victim and the executioner in the same room?  We live in a period of time where society has been affected by acts of terrorism and it is important to ask oneself whether it is possible to live side by side after tragic happenings.  Is it possible to forgive what happened in Paris; is it possible to occupy the same room after having been subjected to cruelty?  Hollywood films merely deal with revenge, never with forgiveness.  The aim is to kill the enemy and it seems to be the only solution.

TF: I experienced certain optimism in the film, because the protagonists actually manage to talk together. A kind of reconciliation takes place.

MSH: Absolutely. The former soldier starts to reflect over his own actions, during his conversation with the victim.  He admits that he behaved like a puppet and never questioned what he was asked to carry out.  The confession is actually a sign that the soldier will dare to withstand pressure and refuse to carry out atrocities, should he find himself in a similar situation in the future.

TF: You do not portray the dictator in the film.

MSH: I watched a number of documentaries about Adolf Hitler beforehand, and was considerably shocked at how directors only used documents and archived items, which portray Hitler from his best and most powerful side.  I do not understand what one aims to achieve by doing so.  Although I had at my disposal a very rich archive of items connected to Hissein Habré, it was very important for me not to produce something similar, however instead to focus on the victims.  It did not feel right to create yet another documentary in which a dictator primarily is portrayed via glorifying images from the height of the latter`s reign.

(A Screaming Man, trailer)


TF: Do you feel that your fiction films and your documentaries contribute towards one another?

MSH: One can conclude, in a way, that Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy, sums up all the others, that all my other films (like for example Abouna and Bye, Bye Africa ) have lead to Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy. The latter explains why I did not end up producing comedies, but tragedies.  There is no clear distinction between a documentary and a fiction film, since I always strive, also in the case of my fictive productions, to weave in documentary qualities.  It can also be the case of something so simple as the way one holds a camera.  I attempt to combine the various forms.  The most important thing is that the story is related realistically.

TF: Abouna is an extremely visual film, with striking use of light and colour.  Style wise  it stands out from your earlier, more sober works.

MSH: Here I attempted to use contrasts, especially the use of blue and orange.  The beautiful landscape and the colours are meant to juxtapose the tragedy, and consequently make room for sadness.

TF: Abouna discusses many of the same topics as A Screaming Man, such as political instability, family relationships and dealing with the disappearance of one of your loved ones.   The war is a backdrop in both of these films.

MSH:  I did not wish to portray war or death, but allowed the spectator to perceive that a war was taking place without seeing it.   I wanted to depict the war solely by means of sound.  I allowed the spectator to hear the sounds of war, like explosions and gun shots, but felt it imperative to create pictures.

TF: The storyline of A Screaming Man seems recumbent such that Aki Kaurismäki comes to mind.  We spend a great deal of time with the family and witness their daily routines.  

MSH: It is important to produce films that cause the spectators to forget that a script is being followed.  That one can feel involved in the story, without experiencing that it is mechanical or calculated, that things just happen, just like in an everyday setting. 

I am very happy that you mention Kaurismäki! In Le Havre there is a main protagonist by the name of Muhammed Sale, and this is in fact a tribute to me.  Kaurismäki has told me that he admires my films and I forgot to mention in the introduction that the admiration is reciprocated.  His films bear qualities such as humanism and respect for the individual, which I have allowed myself to be inspired by. Kaurismäki never attempts to manipulate your feelings.  Watching a Kaurismäki film resembles sitting in a veranda and observing the passers by underneath.  It is incredibly hard to use this technique successfully and not to retort to certain solutions in order to capture the audience`s attention.    The latter is a technique that is often made use of in Hollywood

TF: Can you tell us about your next project? 

MSH: My next project will take place in Paris, and the filming starts already in the beginning of November.  It deals with a family from Central Africa, which arrives in the French capital to seek asylum.  I have managed to procure a handful of wonderfully talented actors from both France and Chad.



This interview is presented in collaboration with the film website


The following films will be screened during the Film From The South festival: Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy, A Screaming Man and Abouna.

(Read the various film reviews and buy tickets HERE).



Film: Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy

Time: 13 October at 08.00 PM

Place: Filmens hus - Tancred

On Thursday, 13 October, Montages meets director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun for a conversation after the viewing of Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy at Filmens Hus.



Film: Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy

Time: 14 October at 6.30 PM

Place: Vika cinema, sal 2

On Friday, 14 October, the public is invited to attend a panel discussion at Vika cinema about Haroun, with the participation of historian and Chad expert Ketil Fred Hansen and lead by Tove Gravdal from Morgenbladet.