Dry Season - Daratt - Mahamat-Saleh Haroun - Ali Bacha Barkaï - Youssouf Djaoro - Atim Abatcha - Nassara - bread

Dry Season
2006, directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Early in Dry Season, right before Atim first speaks to his enemy Nassara, he narrates a brief legend:

“You know the story of the guy who wants to get rid of his shadow at any price? This man runs everywhere, all the time, like a madman. Each time he stops, he turns around and sees his shadow behind him. One day his shadow says, irritably: ‘Listen, why tire yourself out? You’ll only get rid of me the day you accomplish your mission.’”

Atim’s casual introduction (“You know the story….”) hints that we might actually know a story like that. If it’s hard to place this tale of a man who’s bothered by his destiny until he fulfills it, the movie gives us enough clues. Its first image is a blind man, Atim’s grandfather. The protagonist is a young man who travels far from home. He has never known his mother or his father, but he wishes to kill a man who becomes a father figure to him, and he’s attracted to that man’s wife.

Dry Season - Daratt - Mahamat-Saleh Haroun - Ali Bacha Barkaï - Khayar Oumar Defallah - Atim Abatcha - Gumar Abatcha - radio

The only reason not to take Dry Season as a variation on Oedipus Rex is that Nassara is precisely not Atim’s father. Atim’s mission is a tribute to his father, whom he apparently reveres enough to avenge. In case we might want to look at Atim through a Freudian lens, his filial respect promptly lets us know that he’s already mature. Or is he? He gets awfully defensive when Moussa, his new friend in N’Djamena, calls him a “kid”, yet Moussa persists, later calling him a “simple country boy”. Atim’s wish to kill Nassara is not quite as opposite to oedipal rebellion as it may seem. In the Freudian economy of substitutions, the man who killed his father might arouse an equivalent wrath. Having deprived the boy of the satisfaction of killing his father, the interloper also needs to be punished.

By this simple displacement, by transfering the dynamic of oedipal hatred onto the man who killed Atim’s father, Dry Season disguises its intent the same way Vertigo disguises a similar intent by suggesting that Midge is the maternal character. Each movie deflects immediate recognition of its purpose, not to be coy or obscure, but because a good movie mustn’t express itself too directly – it should give the audience space to arrive at the point in its own way. Most viewers will probably take Dry Season for a simple fable of revenge, and it works well enough on that level. We should feel relieved that Atim does not complete his vengeance, and we should appreciate that it’s enough for Nassara to understand the wrong he’s done. Nevertheless, the story becomes larger if, instead of an obvious moral insight, it shows an uncommon psychological insight.

Dry Season - Daratt - Mahamat-Saleh Haroun - Ali Bacha Barkaï - Youssouf Djaoro - Atim Abatcha - Nassara - mirror

Unlike most of Hitchcock’s oedipal dramas, Dry Season charts the protagonist’s path out of immaturity, yet it shares Hitchcock’s conviction that society’s ills are often rooted in childhood sexuality. Atim may carry oedipal motives, but he’s hardly the only character stuck in a child’s mind. The two policemen who beat him for urinating on a wall wield their batons gleefully like boys eager to display a phallus that they’re not secure in possessing. Atim glimpses another pair of police manhandling a pair of women the way oedipal men so often do, motivated by a childish wish to control women. Most blatant of all is the soldier who threatens Atim on his ride to N’Djamena, whom he encounters again at a nightclub, recklessly waving his pistol around like the phallus he wishes he possessed. In the bush taxi he looks like an ordinary bully, but on the dance floor it’s clear that he’s a long way from growing up.

Atim too wields a gun like a phallus, and the movie is thorough in its representation of it. We’re told that the gun belonged to Atim’s father, and when Atim enters Nassara’s home he tucks the gun into his back waist, carefully avoiding a phallic challenge to the man his grandfather warned him to be careful of. Nassara eventually discovers and takes the gun, symbolically castrating Atim, yet later when he offers Atim one of his own guns, Atim refuses to take any, feeling that it won’t belong to him. Instead he takes one from the puerile soldier outside the nightclub. Likewise, the long fluorescent bulbs Moussa enlists Atim in stealing are phallic, the point being that they don’t rightfully belong to either of the young men.

Dry Season - Daratt - Mahamat-Saleh Haroun - Ali Bacha Barkaï - Atim Abatcha - bakery logo - baguette - bread

Guns, sticks, and light bulbs are far from the only phallic objects in Dry Season, and again the film chooses its imagery with precise care for its psychological significance. The baguettes at Nassara’s bakery are unmistakably phallic, and they’re a constant source of contention between the younger and older man. When they first meet face to face, Nassara points a loaf of bread directly at Atim, who bites off the tip and spits it out – again a symbolic castration. In one scene Atim neglects to put yeast in a batch of dough, and in the film’s most theatrically artificial scene he’s punished at the bakery door when all the customers pelt him from offscreen with the inedible loaves – like some ancient drama of a boy being punished for turning his father’s penis into stone. Right before Nassara and his wife Aïcha come home after her miscarriage, Atim lies beside the bakery logo, the image of bread rising from his body like an erection (not coincidentally, this is the last moment he might entertain any desire for Aïcha).

Dry Season - Daratt - Mahamat-Saleh Haroun - Aziza Hisseine - Ali Bacha Barkaï - Youssouf Djaoro - Aïcha - Atim Abatcha - Nassara

Shortly afterward Atim tracks Nassara down and stares at the upright beer bottle in the man’s lap, which Nassara then casts off as if admitting that his manhood has failed him. Even Nassara’s electrolarynx represents a kind of phallus, giving him the power of speech. Like the baguette in their first interaction, Atim picks up this device and drops it on the ground. Apart from all this symbolism, it can hardly be accidental that there are two scenes of public urination against a wall, and that both lead to violent aggression.

Dry Season may be a drama of juvenile sexuality, but its focus is on the father more than the mother – on the young man’s hatred for his rival more than his incestuous longing. Nevertheless in Freudian theory those are two sides of the same coin, and the turning point occurs right after the miscarriage when Atim starts to look at Aïcha through adult eyes as a separate human being. Finally recognizing the woman’s humanity he must also admit Nassara’s humanity, and he gives up any effort to destroy the man. Nassara transfers his paternal hopes from the unborn baby onto Atim, proposing adoption and asking for an acknowledgment of love. Even this verbalization of love, however, would be too much for Atim and too sentimental for the movie. Instead he gives Nassara a wordless expression of love, firing into the air and letting the man live. He has finally escaped his oedipal hatred. In the film’s final words, the grandfather unwittingly confirms that Atim’s road to maturity has been the real story of Dry Season all along: “Did your hand tremble?” “No.” “Then you are a man, my son.”

Dry Season - Daratt - Mahamat-Saleh Haroun - Youssouf Djaoro - Nassara

All of this takes place against a backdrop of civil war. Internal conflict has plagued Chad since its independence in 1960, including a fourteen-year civil war ending in 1979, and Dry Season was made as the country was entering a new phase of civil war. Oedipal conflict is itself a kind of civil war, creating division within the psyche and within families, but in Dry Season this inner psychological rift is more than just a metaphor for the political divisions tearing Chad apart. If we’re willing to believe that the world’s violence is often a projection of unresolved oedipal conflicts, then the connection between the psychological and the political is direct. If only men would grow up, the world would have peace – but this summary would sound vacuous without the rigor of psychoanalysis that Dry Season brings. The movie should inspire us to appreciate what’s at stake in a world where so many men carry unresolved conflicts from their childhood.

Dry Season - Daratt - Mahamat-Saleh Haroun - Ali Bacha Barkaï - Youssouf Djaoro - Atim Abatcha - Nassara

After looking at the movie this way, we can return it, with greater precision, to its original apparent meaning. It’s still a tale of revenge after all, but revenge and violence are more than mere themes – they’re part of an argument that traces their roots to the persistence of infantile rivalries. It’s not necessarily a hard problem to solve, but the value of growing up – the necessity of moving past the intra-familial longings and strife of early childhood sexuality – is widely neglected because it’s so rarely understood. The purpose of Dry Season is to expose the connection between the petty, vestigial, almost ridiculous passions of early childhood, and the immediate local and global conflicts that they secretly influence.


Rear Window – Freudian tale of a man who grows out of his oedipal immaturity

Vertigo – Story of oedipal immaturity disguised by a cunning deflection

Knife in the Water – Story about manhood with a plethora of phallic symbols

A Clockwork Orange – Link between social violence and oedipal immaturity

The Passenger – Indirect allusion to or comment on the Chadian civil wars

Moon in the Gutter – Protagonist’s wish for revenge disguises a lingering incestuous drive

Enemy – Protagonist rehearses his manhood in front of a mirror

Wild Tales – Argument against revenge