Background: It's shameful that African cinema is so hard to come by in the U.S., especially considering its recent success (e.g., Bamako, Mooladé, Tsotsi). So, sight unseen, I jumped at the chance to see Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's latest film, Daratt (Dry Season), starring Ali Bacha Barkai and Youssouf Djaoro, who between the two of them now have a total of four screen credits. Mirroring the success Haroun had with Abouna in 2002, Dry Season was the winner of multiple awards at multiple film festivals, most notably the five it won at its world premiere in Venice in 2006.
Synopsis: Atim (Barkai) is a quiet 16 year-old living in a Chadian town surrounded by desert. His father was killed in the country's civil war, and he cares for his blind grandfather. We don't know any more details about his life (where his mother is, if he's in school, etc.), but it's safe to assume that the war severely damaged the entire community. In a controversial decision, the government has just announced an amnesty for Chadians accused of crimes during the war, meaning Nassara (Djaoro), who killed Atim's father, cannot be prosecuted. With his grandfather's blessing and his father's pistol, Atim sets off for N'dajamena to carry out his "mission": avenge his father's death. Although his first interaction is with an advantageous petty thief (who eventually befriends him), Atim almost immediately locates the unassuming Nassara, now a married baker who has to talk with an amplifier due to a throat slashing suffered during the war. Atim can't find it in himself to murder Nassara in cold blood, and this dilemma gnaws at him for hours, then days, and eventually, weeks. His pistol always concealed on him, Atim learns the ropes of the bakery and in spite of himself soon moves in with Nassara and his wife, who are hoping to adopt him. We never know what Atim is thinking. He's scared. He hates Nassara. He wants a father. He loves Nassara. He wants to go home. He wants revenge. The dusty, quiet streets of N'dajamena perfectly frame the tumultuous relationship between the two characters, but the barren desert is where Atim finally has to reconcile the reason he set out on the mission in the first place.
+ When Atim successfully produced his first batch of baguettes - it was clearly one of the most important accomplishments in his young life. His character development throughout the length of the film was superb, due in no small part to Barkai's excellence in inhabiting the role.
+ That so much was said with so little dialogue. There are few films that so deftly use silence as well as this one.
+ How the city of N'dajamena was so present that it essentially acted as another character.
+ The lack of a musical score. Aside from a scene at a bar, there is not a note of music heard from start to finish, unless my memory fails me.
+ The cinematography - with so little dialogue, the camera had to set the tone and actually "say" a lot.
- A handful of the slower scenes. I tried to be patient, but once or twice I fell out of it.
Writing - 10
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - N/A
Significance - 5
Total: 43/45= 95% = A
Last Word: To put it simply, Dry Season is a masterful achievement in minimalism and symbolism. Using few plot details and even less dialogue, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has created a moving film about the complexities of a life shattered by war. It's simultaneously an indictment and a celebration of hope, and I don't think it can be fully absorbed with one viewing. Every word and facial expression drips with meaning, and the rich themes surrounding fatherhood and "what it means to be a man" are universal to every culture. Though it may require an extreme amount of patience on the part of the viewer (no music or action and little color), Dry Season showcases two actors and an area of the world that few of us will ever see. I was devastated that Haroun was unable to attend the screening at the last minute due to visa issues. The story of Atim is representative of so many people in 2008, and it would have been fascinating to hear his insights on the issues he raises in the film. Maybe I'm being generous in thinking that this is the type of movie that, if made by an American director, would have received international acclaim. On the other hand, an American would have neither the experience or the perspective to powerfully do so much with so little.