A gritty, urgent dramatization of the wanton imprisonment of supposed dissenters by a cruel paramilitary.

Watchdog groups and concerned individuals alarmed at the crackdown on press freedoms in certain African nations will have more than a passing interest in “DP75: Tartina City.” A gritty, urgent dramatization of the wanton imprisonment of supposed dissenters by a cruel paramilitary, second feature by Chadian helmer Issa Serge Coelo makes up in tension what it lacks in technical polish. Fest berths are assured, with an emphasis on human rights-themed playdates.

In an unnamed African country, a government-approved ragtag militia is plucking citizens off the streets and imprisoning them in filthy underground cells. This bloodthirsty force is led by the monstrous Col. Koulbou (Youssouf Djaoro), a bright-eyed, bearded psychopath who shoots dogs, likes to blow bubbles while alone in his office and relishes the horrible sounds of (mostly offscreen) torture. His favorite pastime is “airing” — the machine-gunning of prisoners in a pit outside town.

While preparing to board a plane to Europe on journalistic business, Adoum Baroum (Felkissam Mahamat) is detained after receiving a mysterious letter, the contents of which are never revealed. Surviving the most recent airing and aided by Koulbou’s disgruntled younger wife Awa (Billy Josephine), Adoum is also the subject of a desperate search by his g.f. It’s later revealed the journo was delivering evidence of Koulbou’s operation to a Europe-based human-rights group.

Though Koulbou receives his comeuppance in a half-hour climactic seg that itches with tension, the chilling coda suggests evil can easily return, only slightly altered.

Five years in the making and only the fifth film from Chad, per helmer, pic overcomes rocky story progression and a minimalist tech package by placing Djaoro’s sadistic martinet front and center. It’s a commanding perf, without a whisper of exploitation. As he did in 2001′s “Daresalam,” Coelo displays a commitment to social concerns that flags him as a filmmaker to watch from the region.

Though production lineage in Montreal catalogue cites “Chad-France-Morocco,” there’s no onscreen evidence of Moroccan coin and Gabon-based Cenaci is clearly listed upfront as co-producer with Coelo’s own SIC shingle. Pic’s title derives from Adoum’s prisoner number, followed by the nickname for the filth-smeared bread that constitutes the detainees’ main diet.

DP75: Tartina City

Chad-France-Gabon

Production

A Parenthese Films (France) presentation of an SIC (Chad)/Cenaci (Gabon) production. (International sales: SIC, Djamena, Chad.) Produced by Issa Serge Coelo. Directed by Issa Serge Coelo. Screenplay, Andre Dionlar, Coelo.

Crew

Camera (color), Roland Duboze; editor, Jean-Marc Ouvrier; music, Khalil Chahine; sound, Bougoudi Ousmane. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (competing), Aug. 28, 2007. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Youssouf Djaoro, Billy Josephine, Felkissam Mahamat. (Arabic, French, German dialogue)
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