DARESALAM (Issa Serge Cœlo, 2000)

From Chad, Burkina Faso and France, Daresalam is a fine work about political strife in Africa. It is about the conflict between rebels and post-colonialist forces. (Tyranny and oppression are all too constant.) Because the film refers to factionalism, civil wars, and tax revolts in a number of African nations beginning in the 1970s, its setting is the fictional country of Daresalam, which in Arabic means “Let there be peace.” One of the actual nations whose history Daresalam represents is Chad. (One presumes another is Dar Es Alam.) Issa Serge Cœlo, who made the film, is from Chad.

The film opens in Galbal, an industrious Muslim village. We are introduced to two boys in their late teens or early twenties, longtime friends Djimi and Koni. Djimi’s father, Yacoub, is a farmer. Due to plentiful rainfall, his millet crop has been good this year. Having been unable to buy her any nicety the previous year, he wants to “spoil” Mariam, his wife, by buying her some fabric; she counters that the children need shoes. (Shades of I Remember Mama!) Such needs, in addition to others, will require selling the lion’s share of their sacks of millet. (They must retain some for their own food.) But Yacoub’s hard work and good luck—the rain—prove insufficient to counter three facts that are duplicated in the experience of other villagers: the exploitatively low price officials are willing to pay for grain and other commodities; the recent tax increase villagers are required to pay; the national loan that villagers must underwrite, with payment coming due to coincide with the annual tax. The latter two are not to pay for government services, which are hardly shown to exist. Rather, they are to pay for the cost of the government’s attempt to suppress the guerrilla war being waged against it by rebels—members of FRAP, the revolutionary socialist party opposing government tyranny. Thus ordinary folk are being required to bankroll efforts to suppress rebel activity that pursues the ordinary folks’ interests—a point of irony that many, if not most, may be missing. When Djimi asks his father about the rebels, Yacoub responds that politics, complicated, are not their business. Politics, the film argues passionately, are the business of ordinary citizens, who have a right to live freely—free from oppression, imposed inequities, and terror.

The film is powerful in its portrait of the tyranny impressing the villagers. When one of them in Rass, Galbal’s neighbor, is randomly executed, for not paying his taxes, as an example to the others, the latter spontaneously protest this cruelty and unfairness and are mowed down with open fire for their pains. The village is burned to the ground. Djimi and his mother are on a journey to secure medical treatment for the family’s ailing baby, who dies on the way back from the dispensary. When Djimi learns about Rass’s fate, he joins the rebel forces, along with Koni, and trains as a soldier—a daunting regimen for the shy, sensitive boy. What a wonderfully clever way to expose the inhuman harshness of war—by focusing on the rebel camp, not the government tyrants. However, whereas Cœlo’s sympathies oppose the regime in power, he doesn’t see the revolutionaries as delivering on their promise to end human misery and questions both their tactics and motives. The widest plea that the film makes is DaresalamLet there be peace,—and the premise that war can deliver this may be delusional.

Indeed, the notion of “good guys” versus “bad guys” becomes problematic given the irony of the film’s historical contextuality: that the post-colonialist officials (who even speak French rather than Arabic!) mimic the colonialists they have replaced in oppressing the people. In the FRAP training camp, General Adourm has the right lyrics—“Since our country exists, not one of us eats his own bread and lets his neighbor starve. . . . We were socialists before the word existed[,]”—but his delivery of this speech to recruits, the melody, is unsettlingly bombastic. Moreover, a later remark by someone echoes ironically throughout: “History will tell us who the true revolutionaries are.” Daresalam is much more than a polemical film; it conjures a tragic Shakespearean vision of a cycle of violence in whose grip African countries, unstable and in a state of political flux, find themselves. This helps make the film, rather than parochial, broader in scope.

Djimi and Koni end up on different sides; Djimi retains his allegiance to the rebel camp, while Koni comes to support negotiations with the government. He is after “national reconciliation”—a term that Cœlo invokes anachronistically, from the vantage of the experience of post-Apartheid South Africa. The fractiousness among those opposing government tyranny suggests the elusive nature of peace and the conflict between idealism and compromise, with each side being afflicted with a different blind spot. Koni wants peace sooner, while Djimi wants peace, when it comes, to be better, more profound and permanent; but peace for either side may be an illusion. Interestingly, it is Koni who makes the film’s most compellingly ambiguous remark: “There are two worlds: the one that exists, and the one we fight for.” Upon hearing news of Koni’s execution, Djimi feels he has been “tricked” by the revolutionaries. He simply wants to live in peace with his “wife,” adopted daughter and newborn child.

The captivating idea of peace is rendered in this film brilliantly by the sheer beauty of the countryside in which the FRAP training and preparations unfold. Cœlo, who studied filmmaking in France, never forgets that film is primarily a visual medium, one in which ideas are formally embodied and conveyed by what one shows and how one shows it. Moreover, this is one film in which interiors (inside huts and tents) are as beautifully shot as are the exteriors, in particular, to express the sobriety and intimacy of human interaction. Gorgeous color films aren’t hard to come by, but most rare are ones in which the beauty is artistically expressive, thematically functional. Cœlo is fortunate in the superlative cinematography by Jean-Jacques Mréjen, but the exquisite framing and composition of shots is his own contribution. Perhaps nothing else in this film surpasses the sense of teeming humanity that Cœlo rigorously brings to group shots—that is, shots of numerous villagers or combatants. Daresalam is a feast for the senses, but what we end up digesting are the filmmaker’s ideas.

Daresalam ends up containing both romantic and action/adventure elements, as it tries cramming in everything, a little like Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (1959). Djimi’s mission to find Koni and ask him about his shift in allegiance is farfetched at best, but at least it is only a part of the film, not the premise, as is the crackpot mission to find Private Ryan in Steven Spielberg’s cheap, fraudulent “epic” (1998). On the other hand, Djimi’s innocence at one point is so exaggerated—when he cannot figure out that his girlfriend is pregnant with his child—that it’s ridiculous. Daresalam is sometimes wonderful, but it is also imperfect.

Djimi survives—but is wounded, in fact, maimed. It is this graphically presented event that triggers Koni’s change of heart—or, I should say, change of mind, since Koni’s heart remains constant until his death.

Djimi’s shattered leg: Is this the price of idealism as well as war?

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