The disidentification of Mahamat Saleh Haroun

In 1999, Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s Bye Bye Africa debuted as the first feature film from the country of Chad. The film is to an extent autobiographical, enlisting techniques of both fiction and nonfiction filmmaking to tell the story of an exiled filmmaker returning to Chad to make a movie, identical in many ways to Haroun’s own journey. The film was a runner-up for Best First Film at the Venice Film Festival and launched Haroun onto a string of feature-length dramas set in Chad: AbounaDarattA Screaming Man, and Grisgris.

Despite its richness in philosophy, buttressed by Haroun’s careful dialogue as well as his deliberate alternation between Arabic and French, the film has been remembered as simply Chad’s first feature film, the one that helped launched Haroun’s career. Yet if one digs deeper than the surface-level film reviews, they may expose Haroun’s very personal statements of cultural disidentification throughout Bye Bye Africa as he navigates his own complicated relationship to Chad since his exile in France.

Autobiography and disidentification in Bye Bye Africa‘s narrative

“Once I get a flight, I’ll be on my way,” 37-year-old Haroun says in a Chadian dialect of Arabic, sitting up in bed in the middle of the night in France. So begins Bye Bye Africa, in which Haroun is both directing and starring as a lightly fictionalized version of himself. His character has just learned of the death of his mother in his birth country, which he left to study filmmaking in France. Here is our first indicator of Haroun’s complicated self-identification: a switch from Chad’s trade language, Arabic, to Chad’s colonial language, French, for an off-screen narration: “She died yesterday over there. So far away. And now suddenly, I feel lonely.”

This return to family and birthland is a catalyst for the film’s narrative crux: Haroun wants to make a movie. The evening of his arrival, Haroun sits with his father and the two watch 8mm film from his mother’s youth. His father comments in Arabic, “I remember this! This was at your sister’s engagement ceremony. I remember every moment. […] Your mother was such a beautiful woman!” Haroun’s nephew Ali, a peppy ten-year-old, leans into the light cast by the projector, his silhouette blown up on the screen in front of them. “When I grow up, I want to make films too.”

By Bentley Brown

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