Hissein Habré, a Chadian Tragedy
“It was then that I learned that hell could exist on earth”, says one of the interviewees in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy (Hissein Habré, une tragédie tchadienne). The man is talking about his experiences during the reign of the Chadian dictator, whose eight-year rule (1982-1990) was a catalogue of atrocities visited on his own people by his secret police force, the DDS. As the film sharply points out, this was a regime supported by the United States, who viewed Habré as a bulwark against Gaddafi’s government in Libya.
Presented Out of Competition as a “Special Screening” at this year’s Festival de Cannes, Haroun’s documentary played to a disappointingly small audience when I caught up with it in the Bazin auditorium, where, a couple of days later, Matt Ross’s awful (and awfully popular) Captain Fantastic played to a full house. Ross’s smug and calculated indie may be the crowd-pleaser, but there’s no doubting which is the more essential film.
Haroun brings to this documentary the clarity, directness, and insight that he’s brought to his best fiction films, such as Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010). There are no distracting elements; rather, at under 90-minutes, the film is lean, distilled, and economical. Yet, it manages to cover a lot of ground, much more, in fact, than many of the bloated and indulgent fiction films featured in the main Competition at Cannes this year have done.
Essentially, it’s a film of testimonies, giving voice to those who suffered grievously under Habré, and exploring their struggle to bring the dictator to justice. Most of the interviews are conducted by Clément Abaïfouta, Chairman of the Association of the Victims of the Hissein Habré Regime. Abaïfouta spent years in Habré‘s jails (where it’s estimated that over 40,000 people died), and it’s his efforts, along with those of lawyer and human rights activist Jacqueline Moudeina, that have been instrumental in finally bringing Habré to trial for crimes against humanity in a Senegal court, where the verdict will be reached later this month.
The film’s power lies in the way in which it creates a quiet, respectful space for the victims to tell their stories to Abaïfouta. With scrupulous delicacy, the film pays very close attention to the bodies and faces of its subjects, who are mostly presented in two-shots or close-ups, and who are clearly still bearing the scars (physical and psychological) of the torture that they endured.
On one occasion, the film evokes Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (2014), as it brings together a victim and his former jailor. Yet, the tone here is less strident. Rather, Haroun’s approach, and Abaïfouta’s personable, patient presence, imbues the film with a soulfulness throughout. This documentary maintains a quietly searing intimacy, and, in one of the most beautiful scenes, Abaïfouta is shown bathing an elderly man, his tender attention at once encapsulating the film’s tone and contrasting with its stories of damage wrought upon human bodies.
As it progresses, Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy becomes a wider reflection on remorse, justice, and the possibility of forgiveness, but it accomplishes this without ever losing sight of the individual stories of its subjects. Habré‘s atrocities and trial have received disgracefully little attention in Western media, and it would be a crime if this film were similarly overlooked.
The dictator himself appears only in the documentary’s final moments where, in recent footage, we see him struggling with security guards as he is dragged from the Senegal courtroom. It’s as potent and haunting an image as any of the films featured at this year’s festival have offered.