Two new films, African in their sympathies and traumatized materials if not necessarily in production fact, both glance off the state of life in Chad, and both ruefully contemplate the placelessness of teenage boys. Lyrical and stoic, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Abouna is the less political film, set on the western frontier of Chad (that much farther way from the hellfire of Sudan), and focused on the vacuum left by vanishing fathers. Fifteen-year-old Tahir (Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa) and eight-year-old Amine (Hamza Moctar Aguid) are two brothers waking up to find their dad’s bed empty and mother (Zara Haroun, no relation) not talking. It’s a universalized setup—in Africa as elsewhere, fathers often leave to find work in neighboring countries, find none, and in shame, never return—but director Haroun, a Chad native educated in Paris, goes for a dry mix of Kiarostamian simplicity and the Iranian master’s cine-reflexivity. The boys go to the cinema, and from the movie their father greets them, compelling the pair to later steal the print—rolling it back home like a stray bicycle wheel—and scour it for physical proof of the experience.
As any theorist will tell you, it’s a doomed mission, and the search for paternal connection eventually leads the brothers to the Cameroon border and other fruitless landscapes in the mist. Throughout, Chad is affectionately visualized as an Eden of tropical colors and sun-dappled glades; this isn’t the dusty sub-Saharan west of Sembene or Cisse. By way of a tragic left hook, Haroun’s relaxed movie climaxes back where it began, on the devastated home ground. The journey, however pessimistic, is like a gentle handshake.
More ambiguous, the video doc Lost Boys of Sudan skirts Chad’s opposite border, which serves as a viaduct for refugees from the 20-odd-year Sudanese civil war. Filmmakers Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk simply follow several Dinka teenage boys (out of a displaced army of 20,000) as they end up in a UN camp in Kenya and then in Houston. (It’s clear, but not dwelled upon, that there are many more “lost girls,” but their fate as sex slaves is another, more monstrous story.) Without the intrusion of voice-overs or interviews, Mylan and Shenk attained a remarkable intimacy with the strapping, earnest, startlingly beautiful teenagers as they struggled to shed traditional habits—at home and in Kenya, friends walked hand in hand, a norm they quickly realized wouldn’t fly in Texas—and adapt to a country simultaneously heaven-sent and many times more difficult and demanding than they’d dreamed.
“Don’t act like those people with the baggy jeans,” the boys are admonished before they board the plane and attempt to decipher their pre-packaged meals, but their trials are more concrete. There’s simply too much stuff to manage here, from classes and jobs to rent, car insurance, traffic court, tricky appliances, receipts, socializing discomfiture, etc. Soon, the bucolic simplicity of Dinka village life is an idealizable loss, and the advantages of modern consumer society at its crassest—sectional sofas, cheeseburgers, supermarkets—don’t seem so desirable. In the Sudanese youths’ wide-open faces, the progression of commercial culture crystallizes as something to mourn as well as celebrate.
“Letters from Chad: A Talk With Abouna Cirector Mahamat-Saleh Haroun” by Laura Sinagra