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E. Nina Rothe Headshot

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Cannes Juror, Exceptional Filmmaker

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Mahamat-Saleh Haroun on the set of Grisgris

In the last few days, cinematic circles have been all abuzz at the news that the Cannes 2014 Cinéfondation and Short Films Jury will be headed by Abbas Kiarostami. Yet as much as I adore the Iranian filmmaker and count some of his titles among my top ten favorite films of all times, a name jumped at me from the list of his co-jurors: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun.

Haroun's latest film Grigris has a groundbreaking, pioneering aspect to it that cannot be overlooked. The first official entry from Chad to the Academy Awards Foreign Language Oscar race, it is simply a moot point that the film did not make the shortlist. It had already premiered in Cannes, where the film's director of photography Antoine Heberlé won the Vulcan Award, screened at festivals around the world, and is getting ready for a theatrical release in the U.S. soon, through prestigious world cinema distributors Film Movement.

Grigris is a human story. A story about someone who doesn't let disabilities he's born with, both physical and geographical, stop him from dreaming. It's a story of Africa, and of "the Other," that stranger who easily turns into the face in the mirror, depending on where we find ourselves in the world.

At this year's Dubai International Film Festival, I had the privilege of sitting with Mahamat-Saleh Haroun for a talk. His charm is palpable, just as his intelligence and insight are undeniable. But perhaps the most wonderful quality Haroun offers, with each word, each glance, each movement, is his wonderful humility, despite his enormous talent. Cannes promises to be magical this year.

You deal with somebody who is really "the Other" because of his disability, and yet is able to overcome it and be a completely positive character. How do you deal with the idea of "the Other" in your films?

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: It's a great question, you know, it's just like "the Other" is this experience, the intimate experience of being African in this world. I'm not saying about being black. There is a big difference, being African... I travel a lot, I used to travel a lot, my parents were diplomats, and so you feel always, you are "the other of the others." Every time. And the question of being legitimate in a place is always there, this question. I am like the other one, I mean in the world. So this intimate experience helps me to reflect about this kind of person Grigris, [actor] Souleymane Démé and I think that when you are considered as the other, the different one, the only thing that you have to bring and to break down the differences is just your human part of being.

If you see yourself as only part of the human race?

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Absolutely. In your stories you just have to bring this idea of "I am a man, and so I am universal." I am going to tell you a story about a human being and not about the way how you see me in an ethnographic way. So I'm always trying to tell a tale, that's kind of about African feelings and about the representation of Africa. It's like a painting that you have in your room, which is not right - (Haroun makes a gesture in the air, pretending to straighten the imaginary painting) - my job is to make it right.

Where did the story come from? Did you find your lead first and build the story around him?

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: I had the story first, because I know these young people in Chad, in my neighborhood, that used to bring gasoline from Cameroon and they cross the river by night and then they sell gasoline in small bottles in the street. They are in our same neighborhood, they are dealers, but we understand also that they don't have the means to live - it's a question of survival you cannot just condemn them. And so I started working with them and wanted to tell their story, but it wasn't very interesting. In a way it was a kind of thriller without something else. Then, in 2011 I was in Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou during the film festival, and I met this guy, Souleymane Démé in a dance show. He had a small sequence of five minutes, in the middle of the show you see this man coming into the African night and he was - as you see sometimes black people - he had blond hair... He came out dancing like a muppet. It was incredible and I said "This is Grigris!" This is my guy.

And how did your film change?

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Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: I had the title but I didn't know that Grigris will become a dancer. I discovered the guy and I said "this is Grigris and he's going to be a dancer" and then I started changing the whole script, because I'd met him and he accepted, even if he didn't have any experience.

So how do you deal with a first time actor?

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: It's a kind of love relationship with actors, so you have to understand them, respect their reasons. It's a kind of tempo and it's just like trying to let them give you their truth and being always sincere, let them feel that you love them in a way. And in response they will give you love. That's it. It's a question of sharing something with a lot of sincerity. That's why I think we could all become, in a way, actors. Maybe not become, but act once if it concerns our own life.

Do you like to work with first time actors?

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Absolutely. I love it because it's a kind of virgin territory. I think that freshness is very important and this also naive side that you can have in some people is very interesting. Nowadays is all just a question of performance and I don't like that. There are a lot of places in the world where people are not really living a performance life. I like working with people where the issues are just human, they are not financially driven.

Is your actor, Souleymane Démé, continuing to pursue a career in films?

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Yes, my French distributor used to say Grigris changed the world because Grigris has changed the life of Souleymane Démé. He was in Cannes, right now he's on a tour in France because he got a contract, now has an agent, in Paris. As you have seen in the film, he used to dance in bars, and people used to give him small change. But since he acted in the film, now they say, you will have a contract, we will pay you and you're going to dance. So he's become a professional guy, and I think it's very important. Where I come from in Africa, it's nice that cinema could make that change.

How did the film change you as a filmmaker?

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: My first distributor and the producer wanted us to be part of the Oscars, but I didn't expect anything. I thought that the Oscars, that's too far from me, they don't care about this kind of cinema... And that's not true. When you don't know people you can imagine things and they are not always right. America is just an amazing country. You think people only like commercial cinema, then you meet some and they understand very well what you are talking about.

And finally, what is your next project?

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: It is called Indian Passion and I'm going to shoot between Chad and Mumbai.

Top image and poster courtesy of Film Movement, used with permission.