Cannes 2016: Survivors of Dictatorship Tell Their Stories in 'Hissein Habré, a Chadian Tragedy'

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's spare but searing documentary gives voice to those who suffered under Habré's regime.

Hissein Habré, a Chadian Tragedy

Director: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Year: 2016

“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.







The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.