Notes from the LFF: Grigris (Mahomet-Saleh Haroun, France/Chad, 2013)

African cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013

There are several points of interest regarding Grigris, Mahomet-Saleh Haroun’s latest film, which tells the story of a dancer-cum-photographer-cum-tailor, Souleymane, also known as Grigris (Souleymane Démé), who falls into a somewhat inept life of crime as a result of a need to raise money for his ill uncle.

Firstly, while this film does not quite hit the heights of Haroun’s explosive Un homme qui crie/A Screaming Man (France/Belgium/Chad, 2010), it is nonetheless a remarkable work from one of Francophone Africa’s most skilled and current practitioners (alongside Abderrahmane Sissako, if I were to name the most noteworthy two – of those whose work I have seen, of course).

Secondly, and much more importantly than any judgment of ‘quality’, the film is an important study of gender.

Grigris falls for local escort and would-be model, Mimi (Anaïs Monory), in particular when he photographs her for a shoot. We are in the classic territory of woman as spectacle; Grigris decides that he will love Mimi from this point on – and does not feel much the need actually to ‘know’ her.

However, Mimi has already spotted Grigris – and we have already seen him – earning (some of) his money as a dancer in a local nightclub. That is, Grigris is himself something of a spectacle for the clubbers of what I presume is N’Djamena (Chad’s capital, unspecified – at least to this viewer – during the film).

Importantly, Grigris is lame in one leg, walking permanently with a limp and being somewhat thin and wiry in frame as a whole. He is also ripped off at the film’s outset by a friend who collects money while he is dancing.

In other words, Grigris is himself a sort of entertaining escort, a (freak?) (black) body to behold – who is also pimped out and who does not receive full recognition for his labour.

Kind at heart, Grigris is also told on various occasions – at least implicitly – that he cannot hack it in the man’s world that is the illegal trade of petrol. This is particularly clear when he tries, with his new boss Moussa (Cyril Guei), to swim petrol barrels across the Chari river (I assume) into neighbouring Cameroon. In other words, ‘feminised’ in his job, Grigris is also marked out as ‘not masculine.’

Grigris and Mimi end up getting together – and when his relationship with Moussa is soured as a result of the latter (in fact – *spoiler* – rightly suspecting Grigris of ripping him off) – they flee together to her home village, somewhere out in the country.

Grigris’ ‘non-masculine’ status is reaffirmed during his theft and sale of Moussa’s petrol: he beats his head repeatedly against a wall to give the impression that he has been beaten and robbed. In other words, there is a masochism to Grigris that separates him from the more sadistic like of Moussa.

Back in Mimi’s home village, Grigris quickly becomes accepted as the only man in the village – and he teaches dancing to the local kids, as well as fixing village radios and the like (with one particular shot, of a stack of radios, recalling a similar image in the last film of the late, great Ousmane Sembène, Moolaadé (Senegal/France/Burkina Faso/Cameroon/Morocco/Tunisia, 2004), also a study of the role of women, this time in rural Burkina Faso).

Not only does Grigris’ presence in the village speak of the migration of all fit men to the city in order to make money, leaving the countryside inhabited uniquely by woman, children and, occasionally, old men, but it also suggests again that he has in certain senses ‘become woman’.

But this becoming woman is not a sign of weakness, even if others take it as such. During one of Grigris’ remarkable dances, he lifts up his lame leg, holds it like a gun, and pretends to fire with it – an image that recalls the sort of thing that the quietly (if not exactly subtly) subversive Robert Rodriguez does in a film like Planet Terror (USA, 2007).

I am thinking in particular of Rose McGowan turning a stump leg in that film into a literal gun. The metaphorical gun/leg that Grigris shows here also suggests a sort of ‘female revenge’ fantasy, in which his disability (being a ‘woman’) is in fact not a disability at all – it is simply a token of difference, even if society wants to make him a spectacle and not a fully functioning human being as a result of this.

When one of Moussa’s men finds Grigris in Mimi’s village, the entire female population gathers in what is both an amusing, rousing and moving scene – and they beat the intruder away (second *spoiler* – they in fact beat him to death).

Sure, this may be problematic from the moral standpoint – killing is not good. But it also suggests that in womanhood there is a solidarity that is nowhere to be found in the dog-eat-dog male world of the city, and that it is women who are the bearers of a more hopeful, communal future.

As per A Screaming Man, Haroun sets his films against a backdrop of globalisation, particularly the continued presence of Chinese settlers in Africa (Chad specifically) – rendered in Grigris as in A Screaming Man via the presence of a seemingly powerful, and notably female, businesswoman (here, a hard-drinking restaurant owner).

But really the film is about how there is beauty and community to be found in those typically outcast by society – the supposedly disabled Grigris (whose solo dance sequences in his studio are beautiful and far more artistic than his nightclub performances) and the community of women into which he ultimately inserts himself.

Perhaps this is a simplistic reading of Haroun’s film – but at first blush, Grigris nonetheless seems to suggest that the future of Chad/Cameroon (I think I recall that Mimi says she is from Cameroon at one point), and potentially by extension ‘Africa’ (if one can speak of it as a singular entity), is female and in the hands of those currently overlooked.

Without the seething anger of A Screaming ManGrigris is nonetheless a warming and hopeful tale. It only seems a pity that few were the films from Africa to have made it to this latest London Film Festival. Perhaps the upcoming Film Africa festival (the website of which is at time of writing down, but the link to which I include anyway).

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