Commissioned for the ‘New Crowned Hope’ festival celebrating the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, Daratt is a dry, considered African take on familiar themes of revenge and absolution. In the wake of Chad’s civil war, the perpetrators of the conflict are given amnesty by the government. Teenaged Atim is told by his grandfather to avenge his father’s death by tracking down and executing the man responsible, ex-general Nassara. But upon confronting Nassara, Atim is unable to do the deed. He instead goes to work in Nassara’s bakery, biding his time until he can find the inner strength to commit murder.
This basic revenge narrative is simple, direct and allegorical, familiar to modern audiences from countless Westerns, fables and noir thrillers. Writer-director Haroun brings almost nothing new to the story, but tells his tale with such precise conviction that it’s hard not to be sucked in. The world depicted is fascinating, alien but familiar, ruled equally by religion and the struggle for survival, conflicting pressures which impinge upon Atim’s quest for justice. This is a world of shifting moralities, where killers are pardoned but urinating against a wall can provoke a serious beating.
There are moments of real power in Daratt. The first confrontation between Atim and Nassara comes about following a moment of unexpected generosity – Nassara hands out bread to the local children, and Atim uses this as an opportunity to get close to his intended victim. The boy’s hatred remains unspoken, but his nervous intensity speaks volumes.
The middle sections tend to slump. There’s precious little characterisation, the dialogue sparse and functional, like the events onscreen. The characters’ emotional lives are suppressed, leading to moments of tension but giving us little to hold on to. These are archetypal figures playing out a very structured drama, and as such there’s little room for individuality or invention, in either narrative or character. And Haroun makes some strange choices, dropping his most likeable character, petty thief Moussa, far too early in the story, and giving the radiant Aziza Hisseine, as Nassara’s young wife, almost nothing to do.
But the main actors fill their roles brilliantly. A first-timer, Ali Barkai’s very nervousness and uncertainty before the camera suits troubled, taciturn Atim perfectly, drawing us in where a more confident performance might have alienated the audience. By contrast, Youssouff Djaoro’s Nassara feels like the work of an accomplished thespian, intentionally holding back but managing to convey a real sense of weariness and regret, and a gradually awakening hope.
Only in the final stages does the film truly fulfil its potential. The climax has been meticulously prepared, and a long time coming – even at this late stage we genuinely don’t know whether Atim will have the strength to kill Nassara. Even the previously rather functional photography gains new life, with a beautiful reverse shot from the back of a truck, pulling out of the city and into the desert.