The Divided Sensibility of “Bye Bye Africa”


The Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is the subject of a welcome retrospective at BAM, April 20-25. It features the U.S. première of his new film, “A Season in France,” in which Haroun, who has been living in France since 1982, bitterly confronts the shame and the scandal of that country’s xenophobic rejection of recent African and Asian migrants.

“A Season in France” is the story of Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney), a refugee from the Central African Republic who, with his two young children, Asma (Aalayna Lys) and Yacine (Ibrahim Burama Darboe), has fled a conflict in which his wife, Madeleine, was killed. Abbas, a former teacher, lives in Paris and works at a wholesale produce market. He’s in a relationship with a co-worker named Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire), an immigrant from Poland; his colleague from home, Étienne (Bibi Tanga), a former professor who fled with them, is a regular presence in the household. The stability and safety of Abbas’s family depend on a court decision about their application for asylum. Meanwhile, the family is shunted from apartment to apartment. When the appeal is rejected, Abbas hopes to remain in France nonetheless, but his effort puts Carole at serious legal risk.

“A Season in France” is a sort of ghost story—it’s haunted by the phantom of Madeleine (Sandra Nkake), whose virtual presence weighs on Abbas’s conscience and on his relationship with Carole. But, above all, Haroun looks keenly at the migrants’ practical struggles: Étienne’s hygiene at a communal bathhouse and his job as a security guard; Asma and Yacine’s awareness of the dangers that they left behind in Africa and of the bureaucratic sword of Damocles that’s hanging over them. The movie’s central sequence—Carole’s birthday party, in her apartment, with Abbas and his children—is a long and complex scene filmed in a matched pair of extended static takes. It’s a cheerful, familial moment realized as a sort of theatre of ordinariness that exalts the simple pleasures of a life in safety as an elusive paradise, one that’s brutally threatened by the hands-on violence concealed in France’s administrative indifference.

Haroun’s first feature, “Bye Bye Africa,” from 1999, is another story of a single father and his two children. Here, Haroun plays a character with his name. Mahamat-Saleh, a filmmaker living in France, has been away from his home town of N’Djamena for ten years. After his mother dies, he returns home, alone, and intends to make a film there. Mahamat-Saleh shoots documentary footage—including a study of the decline of Chad’s film industry, featuring a close look at the decaying movie palaces of his youth and at the economic and political threats to the African cinema. He also dramatizes, with anguish, the aftermath of his personal relationship with an actress who lives there. Mahamat-Saleh launches a public campaign for the production of the movie he wants to make, called “Bye Bye Africa”—and his casting tapes provide a crucial critique of his own methods, and of his divided sensibility, as he struggles to reconcile his French artistic education with his African identity. ♦



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