Mahamat-Saleh Haroun discusses his latest film A Season in France, which follows a refugee and his family as they hope to be granted the permission to stay in France.
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has now lived in France for 30 years, yet A Season in France is his first theatrically-released feature not to be set in his native Chad. Ever since his feature debut, Bye Bye Africa — the first feature ever produced in Chad — Haroun has focused on stories set in Africa. Despite the change of scenery, Haroun stays in familiar thematic territory, addressing identity, history, and connections made in a world in flux.
A Season in France follows Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney), a teacher fleeing the war in Central African Republic and seeking asylum for himself and his two children in France. When the film begins, Abbas is already involved with Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire), a local French woman he works with. She is one of several characters around Abbas, who collectively form the image of a culturally rich and diverse France — one that stands in sharp contrast to the less welcoming immigration policies of the country.
In our interview, Haroun tells us about the role of memory in his filmmaking, the ties that bind people in a society, the cinematic representations of migrants and of the system that rejects them, and much more.
Seventh Row (7R): Most of your films are set in Chad. Why did you want to make a film set in France?
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (M-S H): I’ve lived in France for more than 30 years, and creation is quite simply a matter of memory. After three decades, I also have a French memory because I live in France and see things here. I wanted to document my era, report the things I’d lived and seen over 30 years. It’s also a way to observe and note, from a little distance, things that are happening in the country I live in.
7R: Abbas is played by Eriq Ebouaney, an actor that often stars in American action films. How did you come to cast him in this rather different role? Was he your first choice?
M-S H: Yes, I absolutely wanted to cast him in the role. Eriq is an accessible, open person, and I believe he is the most talented actor of his generation — in France, in Africa, or anywhere else. I wanted to work with him for a long time, and I wrote the script with him in mind.
I knew he was a great actor, and he knew how to give me what I expected from him. He’s like a chameleon: he can go from action films to quieter fare.
I wanted to use him in a different register, because despite his imposing frame, he has a kind of fragility. He’s always shown as a strong bad guy, and I thought there was something else to say about him. It’s a bit like in my films — there’s always something else to be said about my characters beyond their appearance.
7R: This idea of the characters being more than what they appear also works, I think, with the character of Carole, played by Sandrine Bonnaire. We don’t see much of her life outside of her relationship with Abbas, yet she still comes across as a fully-fledged person. How did you write this character? She loves Abbas, and they are very close, yet there is a certain distance where she cannot fully understand his pain.
M-S H: Having lived in France for a long time, I was inspired by a few people I know. I wanted to paint the portrait, at least in small touches, of a woman who’s in love with a man who keeps a part of himself a mystery. She is excluded from a part of his life that she doesn’t know. He hides them because he finds them undignified, because he’s ashamed of them. But I still wanted to give this woman a kind of generosity, and I think that Sandrine Bonnaire brings a lot of things to this role. I wanted a woman who was loving, and who herself had a background with parents issued from immigration, who were political refugees — in the film, they are Polish.
7R: The characters in the film are all immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants, and the film is titled A Season in France. There’s this feeling that there is a France out there that we don’t see, and which isn’t tolerant like Abbas’ friends are. We never really see the people who object to Abbas’ presence in the country, yet we feel their presence.
M-S H: I didn’t want to point fingers at an administration or system that pushes aside this man and his children. I really wanted it to be anonymous: a system that doesn’t have a face. By contrast, I wanted to give faces to the refugees. Usually, when we talk about migrants, we always see hordes of people, but they don’t feel like individuals. They’re presented as a menacing group that has come out of nowhere. That’s the image of migrants given by the media and by quite a few films.
By contrast, I wanted to give them faces, and the reverse shot of those faces is the anonymity of the system. The more humane the migrants are, the less humanity they are confronted with. They are faced with an administration without face or name. I wanted to show Abbas in the kind of solitude that arises without those links that are important in any society. When those links are gone, we’re a bit lost and isolated.
7R: How do you work with your actors? Is it very scripted, or is there some space for improvisation?
M-S H: There is some improvisation. The scene that is the longest, Carole’s birthday, was completely improvised. They drank a bit of champagne before shooting; they were a little tipsy, and I let things flow a little. Because I trusted them. It’s long; it’s risky; it’s not structured — there are gaps. It doesn’t progress towards a particular thing. But I wanted this moment in order to show the fragility of their everyday lives.
When I do improvisations, it’s always improvisations with dialogue. I’m like an architect, but I let the doors open for everyone, and the actors bring something. Making a film is also making it with the actors. You can’t use them like puppets. They are interpreters before anything else. They bring another layer to what you’re writing.
7R: The children’s dialogue is very clear and sharp, but they’re still believable as children. Everything around them is a little strange and intense, which, in turn, gives an unusual intensity to everything they say and do.
M-S H: You know, when you’re a child refugee, having gone through this tragedy as a child, there’s a certain point where you become very aware of changes. You observe. At the slightest change, you tell yourself, “Something is going to happen.” Because you’re used to a certain instability where the smallest sign, the tiniest silence from your parents worries you.
The children are constantly on guard for anything that can disrupt their lives as soon as they settle down a little, because they’re not used to stability. Eventually, because of this, they start listening to everything; they become sensible to everything. They become a bit like adults; they’re children who grow up too fast because of the tragedy that they’re going through. As children, we’re only innocent if we’re allowed to remain in a world of children. But when we go through wars, exile, things like that, we’re excluded from the world of children, and we start observing things differently.
7R: When the children realise that their father is in a relationship with Carole, they have a very beautiful reaction. They welcome her, and there are no issues. We don’t see the children that much, but we get clues about their personalities in moments like these. There are many tragic things occurring in the film, but not on this side of the story.
M-S H: No, there is no tragedy there. Having gone through all these obstacles, these children lack a maternal figure. And they are not children who were raised with the idea that people of different colours shouldn’t coexist, so they put no barriers to it. If the father had talked to them negatively about a certain skin colour, it might have been different. It’s cultural. They don’t have any of those ideas.
7R: The end of the film isn’t perhaps surprising, but it is quite shocking. Did you always know you wanted the story to end this way?
M-S H: Yes, I wanted it to end on Calais, emptied of all migrants. I wanted to film it stripped of those people who were not welcome in a way, and I wanted to show the traces of their passage — all that was left were plastic bags, things like this. I also did it because I wanted to document this moment. As opposed to the way television only showed the spectacle of people being chased away, I wanted to film history. I wanted to attest to this erasure of a memory.
At first, the script wasn’t like this. But when I saw that Calais was going to be destroyed, I changed the ending of the story. We went to shoot as soon as they destroyed the camp. The final scene was the first thing we shot. I was afraid that it would all disappear, so Sandrine and I went as soon as we could, and it went very well.
I really like this scene, because it shows how lost Carole is at this moment. I wanted to express the fact that when you build relationships with people, the violence that is done to you also touches the people who love you and know you. There is a kind of collateral damage. Imagine that we’re friends, and suddenly something happens to me — I’m attacked, or something like that — you will be touched by it. That’s what I wanted to underline: the violence done to my neighbour also touches me, incidentally. We can see this clearly with the Shoah. We are touched by the violence done to other human beings. Carole, in the film, is doubly touched, because she also loved Abbas. He leaves, and there is this void, this memory.
The question that all of Europe needs to ask itself is, when people build a memory and we chase them away, what is the hurt we are committing to those who have built relationships with them? Will people keep living like this, forced to jettison these connections repeatedly, stripped of their everyday lives and history?
7R: Do you have another project in the works? Your films often touch on immigration, but it is a vast topic.
M-S H: Oh yes, it is a vast topic. And generally, people don’t like to talk about it. They bury their heads in the sand. If we talk about it, we have to highlight organisations that do a lot of good for immigrants. We have to cast a recognisable face in the role of someone who’s going to help the little migrants — that’s OK, that’s the image people like. But as soon as you try to talk about more difficult things, people don’t want to look.
When I went to the National Court of Asylum, in Montreuil, people were waiting, like in the film, but some of them would collapse. Every week, there are three or four interventions by the emergency services to attend to people who fainted because they got a negative response.
For my next film, I’m going back to Chad — I think I will go back and forth between the two countries for the rest of my career. This film will be sort of about the condition of women in Chad.