«We must achieve justice, so that we one day may cry for our dead,» says Clément Abaïfouta in Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy.
The current Film from the South documentary (which was also screened at the Bergen International Film Festival last month) portrays the many human rights violations committed in Chad during the 1982-1990 rule of President Hissein Habré. This is a part of African history which did not garner much attention from the rest of the world, despite the fact that tens of thousands of people lost their lives during his particularly brutal regime.
In the eyes of the West, Libya’s Gaddafi was the African continent’s big enemy, whilst Habré and his feared, secret police were allegedly supported by both France and the USA.
In 2015, Habré was, at long last, put on trial in a special Senegalese court, accused of crimes against mankind, as the first African despot made responsible for his actions in a trial supported by the African union. This lead to the man dubbed «the Pinochet of Africa» in May this year being sentenced to life imprisonment for sexual slavery, torture and to have ordered the slaughter of 40,000 people.
Portrays the victims. The same month as the judgement fell, Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film does not, however, devote much time on the trial itself, but focuses on some of its campaigners, in the form of a support organisation for the many victims who suffered abuse at the hands of the regime.
The documentary is created as a series of selected portraits of these people, who in detail, talk about the horrors they were exposed to, and of which they remain, both physically and mentally, deeply affected by. This is party done to the camera, but largely as conversations with aforementioned Clément Abaïfouta, himself also a victim, who acts as the film’s narrator and «presenter».
The man who was dubbed «The Pinochet of Africa» was sentenced to death imprisonment for sexual slavery, torture and to have ordered the slaughter of 40, 000 people.
One of these conversations feature one of the perpetrators, during which Abaïfouta takes on the role as moderator between the elderly man and one of his abuse victims. This scene in particular clarifies very well how difficult it can be to achieve the desired atonement, as the former policeman’s attempts at an apology is consistently accompanied by his insistence that he was only following orders.
Simple construction. With its detailed descriptions of a dictatorship’s systematic and revolting exploitation, Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy share some similarities with the documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, which portrayed the communist hunt in 1960s Indonesia. It has most in common with the latter, in which director Joshua Oppenheimer changes perspective from perpetrators to victims. But, whereby The Act of Killing creates a strong impact through the dynamics between the perpetrators’ staging of their past crimes coupled with the reactions these stir in them whilst being filmed, Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy is simpler in its construction, and somewhat more direct in its approach.
It is not least shaped by a conspicuously sober and restrained dissemination of incredibly upsetting content – a description which also fit with Oppenheimer’s films. Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, whose earlier work include the feature film A Screaming Man (2010), wisely shows faith in the film’s witness statements being compelling enough on their own merit, and avoids excessive use of narrative measures to further direct the audiences’ emotions – which presumably could prove counterproductive.
Crucial spotlight. It could be argued that the film at times does not provide enough background information, both regarding Habré’s regime and the people we encounter. This especially as this depressing chapter in recent African history, as mentioned earlier, received far too little attention in our part of the world. Regardless, there is a powerful force in the way the film chooses to go straight to the point, and only features a brief and concise introduction of the Habré story right at the start. The film’s primary, and prize worthy, concern is to enable the victims to be heard – and there is little doubt that the film constitutes an important contribution in helping direct a crucial spotlight on this national tragedy. It is the role of others to follow up on this and portray in greater depth what made this at all feasible.
Hopefully, this documentary along with Hissein Habré’s conviction will, in some way, help the many affected in Chad to finally be able to cry for their dead.
Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy was screened at Oslo’s Film from the South film festival from 6.–16. October 2016.
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).