Global Voices: The Dictator Hunter

The titular figure in Klaartje Quirijns' fascinating documentary, The Dictator Hunter, Reed Brody pursues Hissène Habré, deposed leader of Chad.

Global Voices

Airtime: Sunday, 10pm ET
Cast: Reed Brody, Souleymane Guengueng
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: The Dictator Hunter
Network: PBS WORLD
US release date: 2009-04-26
I will not feel complete until [Hissène] Habré is in jail. I can't have psychological peace. We are doing this to prevent it happening again, for future generations.

-- Souleymane Guengueng

The dilemma of Habré was for some time not that of African trial vs. European trial, but of trial elsewhere vs. no trial at all.

-- Chandra Lekha Sriram, Chair of Human Rights at the University of East London School of Law

Here is the essential illogic of war criminals. "If you kill one person, you go to jail," observes Reed Brody, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch. "You kill 40 people, they put you in an insane asylum. You kill 40,000 people, you get a comfortable exile with your bank account in another country."

As he speaks, Brody's driving through N'Djamena, Chad, at work on an indictment against Hissène Habré, dictator of Chad from 1982-1990. The titular figure in Klaartje Quirijns' fascinating The Dictator Hunter, Brody remains committed to the case, despite serial setbacks (at the time of the shoot, in 2006, he'd been on it for some seven years; currently, Habré's trial has yet to begin). The documentary, premiering Sunday as the start of Global Voices' new season on the PBS WORLD digital channel, does its best to keep up with Brody. As he works to bring Habré to trial, the camera trots behind him or listens in on phone conversations that provide some backstory. Chief among these is Brody's decision not to take a job with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour (a job he notes would secure his child's education, among other things), in order to ensure that the Habré case goes forward: "I really would have liked to work with you," he sighs, before moving on to the next challenge posed by Habré's lawyers, one of whom appears here, clownishly calling his client a "calm man" and suggesting that legal actions might be better taken against Gaddafi.

The suggestion is partly comic, partly ironic, and underscores the fundamental problem facing Brody and Human Rights Watch, namely, that this specific case is only the tip of an vast and ugly iceberg. First, the former warlord Habré has a fairly typical relationship with the U.S. (in 1981, Ronald Reagan used him to beat back Muammar el-Gaddafi, then helped to finance his secret police, the DDS, which tortured and killed opponents). And second, current legal and governmental bodies worry that opening this particular doorway -- to prosecution of national leaders (deposed or sitting) for such crimes as torture, unjustifiable incarcerations, and genocide -- will put others at risk of same. And so, despite the evidence and witnesses against Habré, the case is slow going.

Brody's dedication is matched by that of Souleymane Guengueng, founder and vice president of the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime (AVCRP). A civil servant arrested and jailed by the DDS, Guengueng was tortured by lights shined directly in his eyes (he nearly went blind) and the "arbatachar" method ("My arms tied behind my back to stop the blood circulating and paralyze one's arms and legs"). He also saw hundreds of fellow prisoners die of abuse and disease. At the time of filming, he's living in New York City, two years removed from his wife and 10 children back in Chad. Unable to find work, Guengueng spends his time seeing a doctor who checks his eyesight and asks a question about his emotional state, which is understandably distressed (his rent and food are provided, he says, by "a friend"). In an English class, Guengueng is treated as something of a celebrity, welcomed by teacher and students, who also shout out the highlights of New York City: "Hard Rock Café! Pennsylvania Station!"

While such scenes suggest that Guengueng is making his own way in his new life, however lonely, he remains linked to Brody, who visits Guengueng's wife in Chad (she notes the hardship of raising all these kids alone, he brings with him a bedroom lamp for one of the children that features the Manhattan skyline, featuring the Twin Towers). Brody and Guengueng also make journeys together, including one to see Congressman Gregory Simpson. He assures them that he and his fellow legislators want to "come up with a way to try dictators who have committed, if not genocide, then crimes against humanity." Mm-hmm. Guengueng lays out the stakes:

On behalf of the survivors and victims of the tortures we ask the question: who guarantees the international conventions that are supposed to protect the people when those countries as powerful as the United States don't even take a little look at what's going on and respect what you have promised. Who would protect humanity?

As he leaves Simpson's office, Brody's voiceover notes that while they were promised the Congressmen would write letters to Senegal and the African Union, "they never did." When the Belgian court where they have filed their case against Habré concludes it has no jurisdiction, Brody and Guengueng move on to the African Union ("We know that they'll never let an African leader be tried in a European court," Brody says). On the opening day of the AU conference, Brody watches nefarious leaders file in to the Sheraton like movie stars, noting who's who and offering thumbnail assessments, there's Gaddafi himself (Brody jumps up excitedly as he passes), alongside Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who "wants to get the African countries in the nuclear tug of war with the U.S."

All the interests at the conference can't be accommodated, of course, but Brody hopes the evidence he's assembled will convince the dictators and presidents to worry at least about how they'll look to the rest of the world if they allow Habré to live out his days in luxury. The body decides that Senegal will conduct the trial, though, as Brody notes near film's end, this doesn't mean the trial will ever begin. His frustration does not stop him, however, and neither does it dissuade Guengueng. "The battle I am fighting now should help me get rid of my nightmares," he says, his face scarred and strong as he contemplates a future comprised of small steps forward. "I am no longer afraid of dying."

Since the film's release in 2007, some of these steps have occurred. On 15 August 2008, a Chadian court sentenced Habré to death in absentia. And in September of that year, 14 more victims of Habrés abuses filed new complaints with a Senegalese prosecutor, putting still more pressure on that government to do what it is legally bound to do.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less

Alt-rock heroes the Foo Fighters deliver a three-hour blast of rock power that defies modern norms.

It's a Saturday night in Sacramento and the downtown area around the swank new Golden 1 Center is buzzing as if people are waiting for a spaceship to appear because the alt-rock heroes known as the Foo Fighters are in town. Dave Grohl and his band of merry mates have carried the torch for 20th-century rock 'n' roll here in the next millennium like few others, consistently cranking out one great guitar-driven album after another while building a cross-generational appeal that enables them to keep selling out arenas across America.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.