The Survivors of an African Dictatorship Testify in a Film of Rare Power

“Hissein Habre: A Chadian Tragedy” is essential viewing


Over the course of its simple, unadorned 82 minutes, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Hissein Habré: A Chadian Tragedy wrecks you in ways you might not have known were possible. Habré, the paranoid and brutal strongman who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, confined vast numbers of people in his prisons, where 40,000 perished; even more were left scarred for life after years of torture and starvation. The world turned a blind eye: The Cold War was raging, and the U.S. government considered Habré’s regime a necessary check on Muammar Qaddafi in bordering Libya.

That is just about the only context Haroun provides before directing his camera toward the survivors of Habré’s regime. The filmmaker seeks to preserve historical memory through personal recollection. The movie follows Clément Abaifouta, chairman of a victims’ rights organization, as he speaks to men and women about the torture they suffered. The bulk of the film consists of these candid, painful interviews, without archival footage or voiceover or any of the tactics so familiar to documentaries — tactics that often reassure us that we’re watching a movie that has been processed by time, shaped by outsiders. Here, everything is raw, direct.

Many of these people are blind or deaf or paralyzed. One man recalls how his head was wrapped in sticks and squeezed. One shows us and discusses his many scars, including a long slice in the back of his neck. Another remembers being stabbed in the chin, among other places. A woman recalls being raped. A man describes how his nails were pulled out, one by one, then tossed into a large barrel filled with other prisoners’ nails. We learn of people having knitting needles plunged into their brains — which causes disorientation and loss of language and muscle control as a prelude to death.

I cannot imagine a more effective way to convey the horror of these experiences than to simply have these people recount them. Especially since, in another example of the bureaucratic surrealism so typical of authoritarian regimes, many of these prisoners were forced to sign nondisclosure agreements upon release from captivity. Their attitudes about the nature of justice or vengeance can differ. One woman seems genuinely baffled by Habré’s deeds. “Why create this machine to kill Chadians?” she asks. “He’s a father who killed his children.” Another woman talks about how her search for her vanished husband led her into enlisting in the military, after Habré was deposed, where she rose to the rank of second lieutenant. Asked what should happen to Habré, another survivor responds, simply, “Let him recognize he committed a grave error.” I’ll say.

Is reconciliation possible here? At a couple of points, Haroun attempts to bring captors and victims together: One survivor sits quietly with the man who arrested and tortured him and, aided by Clément, hands over to his abuser a whip and a padlock, the instruments the man used to beat him. He then asks his former captor to kneel before him and ask forgiveness. Asked why he did it, the guard responds with that chilling, eternal cliche: “I was given orders. … I didn’t know he’d hold me personally responsible.” Another meeting between a victim and captor doesn’t go as planned; while reluctant, the survivor consents to talk, but the other man refuses. We sense no shock, no outrage on the victim’s part. Just the hint of a weary shrug.

Remarkably, few tears are shed in this film — onscreen, at any rate. The faces and voices Haroun presents vary from cool and collected to tender, wounded. And then there are the people too broken to respond much at all: Clément’s own father is paralyzed, and his son has to wash him every day. “I can’t stop wondering what we did to God to deserve all this,” Clément observes to his father during a quiet moment at home. Another man, unable to walk or talk properly, has his brain scanned and learns that malnutrition in prison has resulted in irreversible shrinkage to his cerebellum.

There are scant broad-strokes textbook lessons to be learned from this, and the overall mood is not of empowerment or healing. However, in the final moments, we see history start to bend at last toward justice. Habré, who had been in comfortable exile in Senegal for decades, was finally arrested in 2013 (six years after the African Union called for him to be tried). The film includes glimpses from his trial. It also shows us a group of victims, some of whom we recognize, gathering to celebrate. Their outfits are colorful, their mood jovial. We may notice that this is the first scene where we’ve seen many of these people together with others in the frame; so much of the movie has isolated them in close-ups or presented them in simple two- and three-shots. Plates of food being passed around become symbols of a community being slowly woven back together.

Habré was sentenced to life in prison on May 30, 2016, just days after Haroun’s work premiered at Cannes. Is that enough? Among the very final shots we see is a vast, empty courtroom at Dakar’s Palais de Justice — where Habré will be tried — as we hear the voice of the lawyer Jacqueline Moudeina, who works with Clément’s organization, describe the charges against the former dictator. Those hundreds of empty seats become a vivid, unsettling reminder of all the many dead who will never see justice. The film, and the past, resist closure.

Hissein Habré: A Chadian Tragedy
Directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Icarus Films
Opens Sep. 21, Museum of Modern Art