'Hissein Habre, A Chadian Tragedy': Cannes Review

Hissein Habre -Still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of Pili Films
Harrowing and hopeful.

Cannes alumnus Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (‘A Screaming Man’) returns with a documentary about victims of his country’s 8-year-long dictatorship.

Of the many African despots making headlines over the past decades, Hissein Habre, who ruled Chad between 1982 and 1990, is perhaps one of the least well known. Yet in his homeland, where he maintained a secret police force that tortured hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, resulting in nearly 40,000 deaths, his reign is remembered with fear and anguish by a population that continues to suffer to this day.

In Hissein Habre, A Chadian Tragedy (Hissein Habre, une tragedie tchadienne), director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun captures the stirring and disturbing testimony of a handful of survivors who lived through Habre’s dictatorship. These brave men and women, some of them too crippled to walk or speak clearly, describe what they went through during years of arrest, imprisonment and torture, exposing the crimes against humanity inflicted on their people just as Habre – who was exiled in Senegal for 17 years and arrested in 2013 – awaits sentencing by an African Union court, with a verdict due at the end of this month.

Haroun has already played the Cannes competition with his Chad-set features Grisgris and A Screaming Man (the latter which took home the Jury Prize in 2010) and premieres his new documentary in the Special Screenings section. Festival play, niche theatrical and VOD should follow, with distributors taking notice of a film that follows in the footsteps of works by Rithy Panh and Joshua Oppenheimer, allowing victims to both bear witness and confront the very people who brutalized them.

“There are no words to qualify this horror,” is how one scarred man explains what happened when Habre’s DSS (Documentation and Security Directorate) threw him in prison for four years, where he suffered numerous types of torture and abuse, not to mention years of malnourishment.

Other interviewees provide grisly details about the terror brought upon them and thousands of other innocent victims, while a collection of drawings shown in close-up offer up nightmarish illustrations of the DSS’s medieval-style punishments (including the hammering of sewing needles into prisoners’ heads, leaving them discombobulated and eventually dead).

The film doesn’t spend too much time explaining the machinations behind Habre’s government – which began with a coup in 1982 and ended with the rebel commander’s ouster eight years later – though it does point out that the dictator received steady logistical and tactical support from both the U.S. and France, who saw Chad as a strategic stronghold against the Gaddafi regime in neighboring Libya.   

Such international bolstering allowed Habre to rule with an iron fist while he was in power, and what Haroun shows us are the punishing results: men who can no longer stand up on their own, who have lost limbs and teeth, whose brains are withering away from the absence of nutrients for so many years; men and women who will forever be traumatized by what they suffered and what they saw others suffer who never made it out alive.

Despite the grim tone, the movie can sometimes appear lighter than its subject matter thanks to the presence of survivor and activist Clement Abaifouta, who accompanies us on visits to victims, speaking with them in a friendly, laid-back manner about what happened. In one memorable scene, he has a man confront the elderly gendarme who tortured him, sitting between them as they slowly work out a begrudging kind of reconciliation.

It’s one small step in what will clearly be a long and difficult process of recovery for the Chadian people, who, as one victim explains, “must first be able to cry for their dead.” By focusing his camera on those “half-men, completely broken” by Habre’s reign and allowing them to tell their stories, Haroun is helping his country to finally mourn its own tragedy, while his warm and understanding approach offers up what feels like a path toward appeasement.

Production companies: Pili Films, Goi-Goi Productions, Arte France
Director: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Producers: Florence Stern
Director of photography: Mathieu Giombini
Editor: Christine Benoit
Composer: Wasis Diop
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screeings)
Sales: Doc & Film International

In Arabic, French
82 minutes