"Dry Season": Unanswered Questions By Salome Kikaleishvili

in 20th Athens Panorama of European Cinema

by Salome Kikaleishvili

The history of cinema is only a century old. Nevertheless, if we look at all the significant advances in world cinema that took place during this period of time — radical changes and various important movie movements in European cinema (German Expressionism, French Avant-garde, French New Wave, Italian Neo-realism, etc), the directors all seemed to appear on the scene at once to break their nations’ cinematic deadlocks. All of this makes me think that these big events and great advances were preceded by something very great and important.

Important like the First and the Second World War, and the need to escape the human helplessness and social devaluation caused by those two wars; great like a need to flee from the still, frozen paternal clichés coming from the movies. In addition, always, the awakening — a huge awakening, following a period full of obstacles and controversy. Genuine masterpieces were created at the time when there was a need for a conversation, a dialogue in the cinematic language, or at least an attempt to have one. And what happens, generally, in today’s European cinema after that peak of success? Was it the same thing that happened to Soviet cinema? In the second half of the 20th century, the Soviet cinema had some good, even brilliant directors. However, a strange thing happened when the entity once known as the Soviet Union disintegrated, and a single sprawling color of the world map broke into multiple, diverse and independent hues.

The cinema of these individual nations died, or at least seemed as though it had: It froze. And the famous directors from these countries began to shoot not fair or poor, but bad movies. Why are Eldar Ryazanov’s latest movies worthless? What about Georgi Daneliya’s or Georgi Shengelaya’s films? Why did their movies become empty and weak? Did the restrictions, pressure and obstacles placed in their way by Soviet overseers result in their previous brilliance? And now, with no higher authority in control of your script, when the fate of your movie does not depend on some silly man in a comfortable armchair, and when no one is trying to find a stupid reason to block your movie from being shown — what is the reason of this lack of creativity? Can true and highly valuable art only be created when the artist is limited, always under pressure or even entirely without freedom? When you feel a need to let your accumulated energy go and you do this through your works? When you need to have a conversation with your audience? When you have something to say?

Therefore, it is natural that I ask myself a question that looms ever larger as I watch new movies: Why did those favorite nations on the cinematic map fall asleep, and why have their movies become so similar to one another? Why has Italian cinema lost its charm and complexity, and why does today’s French cinema creep so poorly forward? Why don’t they lure us back into the conversation? Is there nothing left to say but the search for foolish forms? Does art depend on something bigger than the artist does? Like history, events, politics, human independence… Has cinema, too, turned into the mouthpiece of big politics?

It is true that, in the past century, many films were produced and many things were said. Many experiments were made. And you may think that there is nothing new left to offer the viewer, nothing he or she has not already seen – nothing to draw their attention. But there is still one true thing above all — the dialogue, inviting the viewer into the world of thought by speaking cinematic language with them, searching and questioning; asking questions that gave no peace when leaving the movie theatre. But today, everything has become so banal, primitive and simple: Bread and circuses. Nobody asks questions, no one is searching for answers and everything has been reduced to either beautiful or sad stories. Aren’t today’s films like generic fast-food products which satiate your basic hunger, but do nothing more? There is no other feeling.

And just at this time, new, different, seductive fruit has appeared, coming from countries whose cinema leads today’s world festivals. Countries whose names appeared on the cinematic map some years ago: Iran, Turkey, Hungary, Romania, Africa, Mongolia, China.

What makes their cinema so interesting today? And how have they come to surpass the favorite countries of world cinema? Are these the only countries left with a wish to engage in a sincere dialogue? Or are we simply enjoying the different taste of eastern delicacies?

Today, I want to talk about one of those new movies — an African film, specifically. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s latest work, Dry Season (Daratt), was released in 2006, and — in addition to the many important prizes it is already won – received the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and the FIPRESCI award at the Athens Panorama of European Cinema.

Everything is dry here, dry and barren: The desert, the burning sun, and even human beings. Many people were victim to Chad’s 40-year civil war. Atim’s father was among them. However, today, Atim has grown up; he is already 16, and the son of the dead man has nothing else to do but to make his grandfather’s wish come true – take revenge for his father’s death. Atim goes to find the man who killed him.

Every day, in a corner of the city yellowed by a thick layer of sand, a blue door opens. A middle-aged man comes out with a big sack over his shoulder to share bread with the children who stand waiting for him. This is the baker Nassara, the person who killed Atim’s father. A former soldier, crippled in the war, Nassara lives a solitary and unsociable life. All he has in the world is his little bakery and his beautiful, much younger wife Aicha.

Atim begins to work at Nassara’s bakery. Isn’t that strange? With a weapon in his pocket, Atim can exact his vengeance at any time, but what does he do? He helps his father’s killer with baking, working side by side with him. Atim tries not to forget the reason he’s come here: Every time he’s alone, he holds his weapon in his hand, imagines pointing it at Nassara and utters the words he’s rehearsed for years: “Do you know what my last name is? Do you know whose son I am? Do you?”

But the reality is quite different. Atim slowly becomes a member of this family, helping Nassara with his housework. He seems quite satisfied, because in addition to this senseless revenge, something new has been added to his life. Maybe it’s nothing special — he’s learned to bake — but at least he can really do something, can’t he? And that is why he’s happy — really, purely happy, like a child. Now he opens the blue door and gives away bread from a sack to the hungry children. He spends his free time with Nassara’s beautiful, pregnant wife and tells her thousands of entertaining stories.

Don’t they have so many things in common? They both are young; both of them are in this story because of other people: Atim, because of his family’s revenge, and Aicha because her parents had decided she would be married young. And despite the fact that, when considering this genuine relationship, the viewer would probably see a love triangle emerging, this doesn’t happen. It did not happen because the film has something more important on its mind: That line which echoes throughout the film, the line which made people ask the question — what, really, is bravery? Pointing your gun at someone in senseless revenge, or forgiving past acts? Shedding more blood, or letting go of old grudges? What is more important? And what will the young protagonist — who arrived in this city with such a clear path before him — do?

There is hardly any dialogue; it seems like everything slowly creeps to the end. Landscapes, dialogues, emotion — everything is reduced to the bare minimum. Because it is not spoken words that are important here, but thoughts! Not doing, but observing! We observe Atim’s eyes, full of hate; when he looks at Nassara, we observe how happy he becomes. Coming upon Nassara asleep in an armchair, Atim imagines for a moment that the baker is dead. He died by himself, unexpectedly. God, how good it is that he had died by himself; now Atim won’t have to commit anything, no!

When Nassara’s wife delivers a stillborn child, the baker asks Atim to stay at his house forever; he asks him to become his son. Nassara knows that, having been badly injured during the war, he hasn’t long left to live. You could also think that he gives his place to Atim. He knows that Atim has much more in common with his wife than he does. He knows that Atim is a good baker, and will continue the business. He needs Atim. The potential assassin has become his salvation. “I want to adopt you”, he says to Atim.

The desert. Dry sand, blind grandfather. The face of the blind grandfather is also a kind of metaphor, a reminder that death is always near. Atim and Nassara stand before him. Nassara has asked Atim to be his son. And Atim. Is it time for revenge? Probably, yes.

“Have you told him whose son you are? Have you?” asks Atim’s grandfather, staring at them from the distance. “Go, finish your work.”
The sound of a gunshot.
“Did your hand tremble?”
“You should know that you are a man now, a real brave man!” replies the old man.

Grandfather and Atim leave together, and you cannot take your eyes off them until their silhouettes finally disappear from the horizon. Nassara is lying on the sand in the desert. The sound of gunshots blasting in the air can be still heard in the viewer’s ears. You recall the final phrase: “You are a man now, a real brave man!” And at this moment you begin to think for yourself: What, in fact, is bravery?