Thursday, August 15, 2013

Grigris – Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Grigris (Mahamet-Saleh Haroun – France/Chad) 101 minutes

French-based Chadean director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun won the Jury Prize at Cannes four years ago for A Screaming Man, his fourth film, making him only the third director from sub-Saharan Africa to win a Cannes award. His new film, Grigris is once again set in his home country, in the capital N’djamena. Souleymane (Souleymane Démé) (aka ‘Grigris’) is a young man whom childhood illness has left with a withered left leg. This doesn’t stop him from being, as they say, a total boss on the dance floor, and his shows rake in cash from the punters in the city’s bars. Grigris has ambitions to become a professional dancer but when his uncle falls ill, he is forced to find other means of income to pay the hospital bills.

He approaches Moussa, a charismatic local gangster (Cyril Guei), who reluctantly gives him a job working on his racket smuggling petrol across the Chari river from Cameroon. After initial hiccups, Grigris wins the confidence of Moussa. He also wins the heart of Mimi (Anaïs Monoury), a young woman who dreams of becoming a model but who prostitutes herself to wealthy Europeans to earn a living. She herself is the daughter of a Frenchman she never met and hides her straight European hair beneath an Afro wig. Fearing the consequences for his uncle if the bills are left unpaid, Grigris decides to rip Moussa off by claiming he got robbed and badly beaten up. Moussa however is not buying it and in a small city like N’djamena it is not too difficult to verify things.

Grigris is an assured sun-drenched film noir that is all the more remarkable for being made largely with amateurs (including Démé, whose atrophied leg and contortionistic dance moves are his own). It is also a rich portrait of a society that rarely impinges on the Western conscience except in news stories about distant wars. The society Grigris inhabits is one that is Muslim but not terribly devout – the Chadeans know how to party and like a drink (and in one amusing scene, Grigris says his morning prayers lying in bed) – but when Grigris’ honesty is put to the test he is forced to swear on the Koran.

It is a society that straddles the pre- and post-modern: Grigris’ mother earns a living as a laundress and she does all the washing in the river, his uncle’s photography concern is doing less well than his tailoring business due to the ubiquity of camera-phones (as Grigris explains to him, "everyone’s a photographer these days"). Moussa’s men are as likely to drive around in old Peugeot 504s as they are in Lexuses; a wooden club can be as powerful a weapon as a gun. The people in Grigris are subject to what Westerners tiresomely and condescendingly call ‘First World problems’; people elsewhere call them, simply, ‘problems’. Though he has had to move to France to make a career in cinema, it’s heartening that Haroun is able to turn out films  about his neglected homeland at such a regular rate. And the films are getting better every time.