Daresalam is the first African feature film to focus on the civil wars convulsing the continent from Sierra Leone to Somalia. It provides compelling insights into how ordinary people around the world get swept up in extraordinary events. Its timeless story of two childhood friends turned into political foes personalizes the terrible costs of internecine strife. Daresalam is not only director Issa Serge Coelo's first feature but one of the first feature films from Chad.
Chad's civil war, one of Africa's oldest, in many ways prefigured the continent's subsequent conflicts. Its pre-colonial roots reflect the basic geopolitical division between an Islamic, pastoralist North and a Christian or animist agrarian South. Northerners traditionally raided the South for slaves for the Ottoman Empire; the French banned that trade and advanced Sara speaking Southerners in their civil service. In the decades following independence, two factions of Northerners fought for control of the country, one with French and U.S. backing, the other advocating anschluss with Qaddafi's Libya. After three decades of civil war Chad is one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita GDP of only $600; in the Spring, of 2001 a new rebellion broke out in the north.
Daresalam begins in the 1970s with two young men, Koni and Djimi, starting adult life as a smith and farmer in a prosperous village. Their placid existence is broken when the central government insists on buying the farmer's millet at below market prices and then browbeats villagers to pay not only taxes but also a national loan to help fight the guerilla war. The estrangement between government and governed is symbolized by the fact that the government ministers must speak French, the language of the former colonial oppressors, because they don't know the indigenous language. When an over-bearing official attempts to arrest the village elder, Koni impulsively spears him; in retaliation the government burns the village and massacres the inhabitants.
Coelo makes it clear that it is the government's corruption rather than ideology which forces the villagers into the arms of the insurgents, FRAP, the Front Revolutionnaire du Peuple. At the same time he does not portray the rebels as uncompromised heroes. As Koni says. "We fight in one world so we can live in another." The rebel leaders, Adoum, Bicara, Tom and Felix, disagree on strategy and blame each other in defeat. Eventually the group splits; Djimi, wounded, remains behind with the hard-liners while Koni joins a faction which supports compromise with the government. When Djimi travels clandestinely to the capital to question Koni about his decision, their meeting degenerates into sterile political name-calling.
Coelo deliberately does not take sides in the struggle within FRAP. While the split reflects the actual 1978 schism between Hissene Habre and Oueddei Goukouni in Chad, other incidents refer obliquely to the assassination of Thomas Sankara in nearby Burkina Faso and even Che Guevara's fate in Bolivia. Coelo vividly captures the atmosphere of civil war, poisoned by rumor, betrayal, posturing, a world held together by unreliable dispatches from partisan radio stations. He wants us to share the confusion of the combatants themselves, torn between rival opinions and ideologies, yet forced to choose sides. As Djimi says "Who is to blame, the revolution or this bloody dictatorship? Neither prevented our misery."
In the end, Djimi leaves FRAP to return to his village in the liberated zone. He brings with him a war widow Achta, and a sewing machine left to him by a fallen combatant. He may not be able to "sew" together his divided country but he can attempt to start a new life for himself and his family. Just as at the film's beginning the rupture of society by civil war was signaled by the death of Djimi's young sister, its continuity and renewal is symbolized by the birth of Djimi and Achta's child at the film's end. As the disabled Djimi stumbles through the village searching for a midwife, the other characters in the film appear as in a dream and we learn their fates: some are lost in action; Koni has been executed in a coup; Captain Felix has become President of the fictional Republic of Daresalam. As for Djimi and the majority of those whose lives have been shattered by civil war, the most that can be said is that they are "still alive," still suffering and struggling.
"A poignant essay on civil war in modern-day Chad, is so achingly beautiful and sad I watched with tears in my eyes...Ends on a note of un-ironic optimism that is more radical than all he calculated nihilism served up on Western movie screens." - LA Weekly "Smoothly edited and mellifluously scored, this film features striking use of landscape and desert?Forges strong characters etched by the wind of history." - Variety "Spectacularly photographed? Few films have left me weeping for their beauty on a small screen. Daresalam brilliantly weaves memory, hope and despair." - San Francisco Weekly
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