Cannes Check 2013: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's 'Grigris'

Continuing our cheat sheet for the Cannes Competition

<p>A scene from &quot;Grigris.&quot;</p>

A scene from "Grigris."

Credit: Pili Films

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(Welcome to Cannes Check, your annual guide through the 20 films in Competition at next month's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 15. Taking on a different selection every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Steven Spielberg's jury. We're going through the list by director and in alphabetical order -- next up, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun with "Grisgris.")

The director: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Chadian, 51 years old). Born and raised in the central African republic of Chad, Haroun fled during the civil war of the 1980s, and has been based in France for the last 30 years -- though he continues to make films in his homeland. Having begun his career as a journalist, he studied filmmaking at Paris's Conservatoire Libre du Cinéma Français; after a series of narrative and documentary shorts, he made his first feature, the autobiographical semi-doc "Bye Bye Africa," in 1999. It was an auspicious debut, premiering at Venice and winning the Best First Film award. He made his first trip to Cannes with his 2002 sophomore feature, "Our Father," which premiered in Directors' Fortnight. In 2010, he made his Competition debut with "A Screaming Man" -- his most widely distributed film to date -- and served on the Competition jury the following year. "Grigris" is his sixth feature.

The talent: As far as I can tell, the film's 20-something leading man -- Soulémane Démé -- is a newcomer. The supporting cast includes Marius Yelolo, who had secondary roles in Haroun's last two features. Producer Florence Stern also steered "A Screaming Man," while that film's editor Marie-Helene Dozo -- who has also worked with the Dardenne Brothers -- also returns. Composer Wasis Diop -- a renowned Senegalese folk musician in his own right -- is a longtime Haroun collaborator. New to the team is French cinematographer Antoine Héberlé, whose past credits include "Under the Sand" and "Mademoiselle Chambon."    

The pitch: As with much postcolonial African cinema, Haroun's work -- which, while stately and reflective, has arguably skirted the sentimental in the past -- tends to work in an allegorical register, examining Chadian social and political inequalities via intimate domestic tragedies. "Grigris" sounds no different: the title character is a 25-year-old man (Démé) who dreams of being a dancer in spite of a paralyzed leg. When his uncle (Yelolo) falls critically ill, however, Grigris must abandon his dream to pay for his care, and takes a dangerous job in illegal petrol trafficking. And Billy Elliot thought he had it rough. The 101-minute French-Chadian production features French and Arabic dialogue.

The pedigree: African filmmakers are still a relative rarity in the Cannes competition, so with two entries in four years -- and a turn on the jury in between -- Haroun is obviously Thierry Frémaux's chosen one of the moment. Tim Burton's 2010 jury backed up the festival's faith in the director, handing "A Screaming Man" the bronze-medal Jury Prize -- though the film's critical reception was more respectful than rapturous, the award propelled it to unprecedented levels of global exposure for the director's work. Haroun's 2006 film "Daratt" took an equivalent prize in competition at Venice, so he's climbing the festival status ladder at a healthy rate.  

The buzz: Quiet, but promising. Third World cinema rarely enters festivals with much in the way of advance chatter, but with "A Screaming Man" having  raised awareness of Haroun's work among the general festival crowd, his latest is expected to build upon that -- it could be one of the mass heartstring-tuggers of the lineup. 

The odds: It's been 38 years since an African film -- Algeria's "Chronicle of the Burning Years" -- won the Palme d'Or, so the most neglected continent in world cinema is due a break at some point. And it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Steven Spielberg go that route. I can't help suspecting that the biggest brand name in Hollywood cinema will feel inclined to reward something far removed from his own world, and if "Grigris" proves emotionally compelling to a general audience -- which the synopsis suggests it might -- it could well be rewarded with a major prize. Cannes betting expert Neil Young currently pegs it as the Palme favorite with odds of 9-2; a bold choice, but an eminently plausible one.

The premiere date: Wednesday, May 22.

In the next edition of Cannes Check, we'll be sizing up a rather less starry entry in this year's Competition lineup: Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive."

PREVIOUS CANNES CHECKS:

Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi's "A Villa in Italy"

Joel and Ethan Coen's "Inside Llewyn Davis"

Arnaud des Pallières's "Michael Kohlhaas"

Arnaud Desplechin's "Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian"

Amat Escalante's "Heli"

Asghar Farhadi's "The Past"

James Gray's "The Immigrant"

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Guy Lodge
Critic
Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.
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UPDATED: MARCH 2, 2014