Mahamat Saleh Haroun brings Chad to the world, and vice versa, through film

After winning the jury prize at Cannes in 2010, Mahamat Saleh Haroun, has led the renaissance of cinema in his home country

When Mahamat Saleh Haroun left Chad as a young man in the 1980s the country was being torn apart by a brutal and seemingly endless civil war. Dictator Hissene Habre was accused of mass political killings, while the rule of military commander Idriss Deby, who took control in 1990, had been interspersed with violent and bloody sectarian skirmishes with rebel groups and Arab Janjaweed militia from Darfur.

Little wonder then that when growing up, Haroun's first love – film – was seen as an irrelevance.

But three decades later, after presidential elections boycotted by the opposition in 2011 saw Deby elected for a fourth term and a peace deal with Sudan ushered in a period of relative stability, the country is experiencing a modest cultural reawakening.

A cinema has reopened in the capital N'Djamena and Haroun's latest film Gris Gris, which centres on a young man pulled into the dangerous world of petrol smuggling, has for the first time been funded by the Chadian government. And now, thanks in large part to his unrelenting commitment to his art and country, a film school of international standard is about to open, he said.

"We have completelyentered the modern world, and it is really quite incredible. I never dreamed that making films could change the course of history, and I can assure you that is the most beautiful present anyone could have given me."

The government has charged Haroun with the task of opening the school in N'Djamena next year thanks to his success at the Cannes film festival in 2010, when he took home the jury prize for his critically acclaimed film, A Screaming Man.

"The award at Cannes has had an incredible effect in the sense that it has practically catapulted the role of cinema and the importance of cinema, even to a political level in Chad," he said.

"From the moment the school opens we will have technicians, actors, an entire industry that will completely change our offering. It will create a whole new economy around cinema in Chad, that's what I'm working towards."

Haroun left Chad in his 20s, forced to flee with his parents during the civil war. Having managed to cross the Logone river between Chad and Cameroon, he made his way to France, working as a journalist in Bordeaux before arriving in Paris. He had left the country wounded, without any possessions, but kept one thing in his pocket: the address of a film school in Paris. "My story sounds like fiction, but it's true," he said. "It was like I was a homeless person, and this school is where I belonged."

Haroun has made five feature-length films, and all but one are set in Chad. Daratt, or Dry Season, tells the story of a young man charged with avenging his father, and who – like his country – struggles towards some form of reconciliation. After three decades he remains determined to represent Chad on screen. "Chad is an exception. There are very few film-makers. If I stopped making them, you would never see images of Chad," he said. "This view of the world, from this country where there aren't film-makers, is very important I think. So, I do it through solidarity and because I feel a responsibility not to leave this country invisible."

But after so long away form his home, is he still well placed tell his country's stories?"I may live in France, but my home is in Chad," he said. "Because I really love this country, I really love its people … the people I tell stories about seem to be real. The most rewarding thing is that when I show my films over there, the people have this impression. They tell me: 'That's it, you're talking about us.'"

In an interview with the Guardian 10 years ago Haroun said that without seeing their images on screen, Africans would under go "a colonisation by images". Since then the ability to make low-cost digital images has transformed the continent's image of itself, he said. "Even if they are made with mobile phones, with little money, these images enable people to see themselves. This reality can be recorded straight away and given to the public."

With the reopening of the Normandie cinema, which was established during the years of French colonisation and closed during the civil war, the country has been reconnected with the world, he added.

"This feeling of being part of the world, seeing the same images at the same moment gives a sense of equality. Things [in African cinema] have changed, fortunately, otherwise there would have been little use in me continuing."

African directors have a responsibility to be brutally honest when dealing with the problems of the continent, Haroun said. "I laugh when I see African comedies because things are so serious. Do you think we need that in Africa? When we have things like in Mali happening? Cinema can't be a luxury, it can't be an art of entertainment. That's a luxury we should leave to others, but not Africans."Dismissing Nollywood, the film industry centred in Nigeria, as a "monster" aping a money obssessed Hollywood, he said: "Film-makers must wake people up, and take part in thinking about Africa's future. They must push our capacity to think about our own destiny."

Haroun's latest film, Gris Gris, which centres on a young man pulled into the dangerous world of petrol smuggling, is being funded by the Chadian government, a direct result of Haroun's success at Cannes, he said.

"That a film can change the course of history in a country like Chad, I find that extraordinary." Asked if he was therefore, confident about the future of African cinema, Haroun said: "Pan-Africanism is dead, and we must bury it. And if it is dead there is no African cinema. There is cinema in each country. We have to create a new utopia, where if one country can manage to create films, other countries can follow."

But he hoped his own success in his own country might provide a example to others. "This is an almost revolutionary idea. Light a candle somewhere and someone else will light another because they see it is brighter. Little by little perhaps we can have candles being lit all over Africa."

The UK premiere of Haroun's Sex, Okra and Salted Butter will be shown on 27 February at 9pm on The Africa Channel (Sky 209 & Virgin 828). Daratt will be shown on 6 March at 9pm


Alexandra Topping

The GuardianTramp

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