By Carlos Aguilar | SydneysBuzz October 24, 2013 at 4:37PM
Grigris, Chad’s Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S.: Film Movement. International Sales Agent: Les Films du Losange
Tackling cynicism with a strike of sheer hopefulness Mahamat-Saleh Haroun opens his film about the struggles of a handicapped Chadian man with a dance number that sets the tone for a film that never sees the conditions of its characters with pity, but with a their forceful wills to survive. Grigris begins on the dance floor with the title character being the main attraction at a modem night club, clearly not the first image the West associates with Sub-Saharan Africa. From that moment on the film develops into a kind of testament to all those in the world who wonder how they’ll make it through the day, and still manage to do so working for a better tomorrow no matter how bleak their situation appears.
Grigris (played by Soulémane Démé) glides to the music gracefully using his unfit leg as an asset to his passionate performance and sporting a contagious smile showing an undeterred joy to live. Trying to make ends meet, he helps his uncle (Marius Yelolo) run his rudimentary but functional photo studio when he is not collecting tips from his devoted fans. Although, hardworking and gifted in the performing arts, he is just like any young man his age and is entranced by the stunning beauty of foxy local girl Mimi (Anais Monroy). She walks into his studio in need of some photos for a modeling contest, to which, evidently, Grigris complies. Her exuberant figure and enigmatic personality go hand in hand with her 70’s black actress-inspired wig, a combination that is not only irresistible for the protagonist, but for the local men who pay for her services. Yet, Grigris seems not to mind it, he sees beyond her outer shell and doesn’t judge the circumstances that have led her to live such life.
Regardless of his remarkable popularity, Grigris is a man with few friends, and when his uncle falls ill, he must resort to the closest "friend" that he has, Moussa (Cyril Guei) a local petrol smuggler who is willing to give him a job. Lying to Moussa about his swimming abilities, he gets the job but fails miserably because he cannot swim. Failure, however, is not an option when his family depends on him. In desperation he tricks the mobsters to get enough cash to help his deteriorating uncle and skips town with his now-girlfriend, Mimi. At this point, Haroun’s artistry as a storyteller really becomes noticeable. Instead of simply tying all the loose ends together quickly by having the couple ride happily into the sunset, he takes the story into a new direction that highlights women’s empowerment in a traditionally male-centered society.
Mimi and Grigris escape to an all women community. Besides becoming their protective army, the community opens the way for them to come to terms with their past and make plans for the future. That is what the Chadian auteur aims to convey, a beautiful story of people in transition. Grigris is unaffected by his paralyzed leg, it is merely a characteristic, never a defining factor in what he is capable of doing. As a performer he commands the crowd's attention, and as a human being he is relentless against adversity. Such sheer determination to overcome obstacles is parallel to the struggles of African cinema, a continent sadly underrepresented in the medium, which Haroun clearly spearheads.
Soulémane Démé, a non-actor, exudes an almost- infantile eagerness to be surprised and to be freed from obvious financial disadvantages by means of his physical exertions which lead to his liberation. His performance and that of Monroy, who becomes transformed from a disguised but calculative sexual worker into a vulnerable loving woman, speak
volumes of the director’s skill, and his preference of bringing out raw performances from everyday people. What Mahamat-Saleh Haroun generously shares with the
audience is a portrayal of an individual whose optimism is more grounded than his impoverished situation. Not only is he striving to help his family but he
is given a purpose and a passion beyond mere survival, an assertive decision from the writer/director who certainly knows how to craft a compelling story
about connections and human transformation rather than about any particular national problematic situation.