Mahamat-Saleh Haroun on Une saison en France

Filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is a prize winner in Venice and Cannes. And also, just like his lead character in Une saison en France, an African refugee in France.

How to introduce Mahamat-Saleh Haroun? He is one of the most distinguished filmmakers of Sub-Saharan African cinema. His Dry Season won the Special Jury Prize in Venice; Un homme qui crie won the Jury Prize in Cannes. His reputation recently led to a brief stint as minister of culture in his home country Chad (he had to leave after only a year, after having refused to compile a list of officials on strike in his administration).

Haroun, like many prominent filmmakers of French-speaking Africa, has lived and worked in France for many years. So maybe that’s the most relevant introduction, given Une saison en France: that Haroun himself was, just like his well-intentioned, but struggling lead character, once an African war refugee in France.

Haroun fled the civil war in Chad in the early ’80s. His main character in Une saison en France (played by Eriq Ebouaney) has fled with his two young children from Bangui, capital of the civil war-torn Central-African Republic, to France where he finds, while waiting for asylum, a job on a market and love with a Polish immigrant (played by Sandrine Bonnaire).

  • Stills from Une saison en France

    Stills from Une saison en France

  • Stills from Une saison en France

    Stills from Une saison en France

  • Stills from Une saison en France

    Stills from Une saison en France

  • Stills from Une saison en France

    Stills from Une saison en France

  • Stills from Une saison en France

    Stills from Une saison en France

  • Stills from Une saison en France

    Stills from Une saison en France

Is Une saison en France based on true events?

“It started because I read in a newspaper that a refugee who didn’t get this status, went to the National Court of Asylum in Montreuil, not far from Paris, and immolated himself. This reminded me of my own history, because as you know, I arrived in France in 1982 as a refugee myself. So I decided to tell this story of migrants, because I am one of them.”

Was your own situation similar to what we see in the film? The waiting, the insecurity?

“No, it was a little bit different. Because the last thirty years, we started building a political discourse on refugees, which has become a central subject in European policies. Migrants and refugees have become scapegoats. They are the weak ones, in society, and they’re being blamed for everything. In my days, it was less complicated.”

Is that why you focus on an individual refugee?

“Indeed. I wanted to focus on their intimate lives. There exists a certain cinema in France, and also in Europe, which shows refugees or migrants as ‘the other’. I wanted to represent them as equals. They have intimate problems, of course, but who doesn’t? I wanted to make this film, showing the daily life of refugees, because I have never seen one.”

I decided to tell this story of migrants because I am one myself.” – Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Is that also why you show almost nothing of the procedural aspect of the asylum request? Because that is something I would expect in a movie like this.

“I didn’t want to go like: hey guys, we have some white guys here, behind their desk, and they are bad. That’s too easy, you know? But everyone can understand that when you have a problem with Justice in France, it’s a system that can break you down. Even if you are a local, even if you are white. That’s the experience I wanted to share and that’s why I didn’t want to give a face to the administration. By the way, I want to emphasize that my characters are not illegal – they have their ID and they are just waiting for a decision on their asylum request.”

You also focus on that waiting.

“I wanted to show the psychological effect of waiting. Of not driving your own life. These things, we don’t usually consider.”

Meanwhile, he has difficulty being candid to his lover.

“I think that’s also the psychological state of a refugee. They’re fragile, they know that they are not in psychologically stable. So they ask themselves, is this really love, or am I just weak and needy? And they also know that, as a refugee, they are a social problem. He doesn’t want this woman to carry his story and his memories. He’s thinking – if I’m thrown out of France tomorrow, I don’t want to be too involved with her. It’s like a mental illness, he suffers from.”

I wanted to show the psychological effect of waiting. Of not driving your own life.” – Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

At the same time, there’s a sense of pride about him. He withholds telling things not to hurt her, but also because in his home country, as a teacher, he really was somebody and he wants to keep up appearances.

“Absolutely, yeah. He lost that, and it’s part of his dignity. Pride and dignity are the same thing, in a way. Refugees want to be given some consideration, you know? And not only be looked at from that other point of view.”

His two children play a special part. They provide background information, in voice-over, for which they actually seem too young. So why did you use their voices for this?

“The first wave of migrants, they struggle to exist, taking every job they can. The meaning of their life is only to build something for their family. And then you have the second generation. They are the archivists. They become filmmakers, writers, journalists. And they start telling the stories of those, who didn’t have the time themselves.”

So they’re really voices from the future?

“Absolutely. Because for a migrant, it’s more than just a question of getting papers. It’s a question of building a memory somewhere. Because, as long as we have memories of them, we can’t erase them.”

Une saison en France premiered at IFFR this year and will screen in Dutch cinemas from 5 April 2018.

Photo in header: Photo: Bram Belloni. Interview: Kees Driessen.