Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s latest feature, Cannes contender Grigris (2013), recounts a tale of hope against despair in the director’s native African country of Chad. It tells the story of the titular Grigris (played by Souleymane Deme), a young man whose ambition is to be a dancer despite having a paralysed leg. He’s a generous and positive young man who helps out his uncle (Marius Yelolo), is a budding photographer and prays when his mother pesters him into doing so. However, his real passion is for dance. At the local disco he’s something of a sensation, strutting his stuff and earning some money by passing a hat around afterwards.
Things seem to be looking up when Mimi (Anaïs Monory), a beautiful local girl, comes by to have some modelling shots taken. Grigris is clearly smitten. However, his Uncle Ajoub suddenly falls ill and the hospital bills mount to impossible levels. Desperate for a solution, Grigris resorts to asking help from local gangster Moussa (played brilliantly by Cyril Guei). Moussa runs a dangerous trade in stolen petrol and Grigris hopes to earn some fast money, risking his life smuggling the fuel at the mob boss’ whim. Both hard-hitting and compelling, Haroun’s film is an intense character study of a man and his disadvantages, living under desperate conditions and yet trying with all his might to follow his dream.
A lot is asked of Grigris’ leading man Deme, who appears in every shot of the film, but his indisputable talent on the dance floor makes for some stand-out scenes, set in stark contrast to the otherwise limited opportunities and poverty around him. Director Haroun eschews the usual social realism documentary style, and instead aims to make a more obviously cinematic work. To his and cinematographer Antoine Héberlé’s credit the film is, at times, extremely easy on the eye.
Chad itself gets such little exposure outside of global charity appeals and sporadic reportage that it’s extremely welcome to see it presented cinematically; to get a sense of life in the city, its humour and its the colour, as well as the inherent problems and dangers. Haroun evokes both well, and later as Grigris moves into the countryside and also back in time, it seems as if a solution is being offered in a return to village life and a sense of community that the big city has eroded.
The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.