Debuting in Cannes just two weeks before its subject was sentenced in Senegal for horrific crimes perpetrated during his 11 years as president, “Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy” doesn’t dwell on the former dictator’s court hearing (except briefly at the end) but instead focuses on the victims, concentrating on the man’s crimes rather than his grandstanding. It’s a doubly wise strategy for this concise, clearly told and deeply effective documentary from “Grigris” director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, which can be released or broadcast in the immediate wake of the landmark occasion, this being the first time an African despot had been tried by an African court — which in itself is damning testimony to the stymied reach of justice on the continent.
Haroun’s narration at the start briefly puts into context Habré’s impact on the world stage, when the future president was involved in a hostage taking in 1974. Unfortunately, Habré’s heinous behavior then, and later when in power from 1982, was given a free ride by the CIA, which became the dictator’s chief backer and trained his much-feared secret police force, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS). Haroun himself went into exile in 1982, but many others were not so lucky, and some sources estimate that 40,000 people died in Habré’s prisons.
Among those who survived incarceration was Clément Abaïfouta, chairman of the Association of the Victims of the Crimes of the Hissein Habré Regime and Haroun’s alter ego in the documentary as he interviews victims of the dictatorship. The documentary generally presents these people frontally, giving them a gravitas, as well as a sense of individualized dignity, as they show horrific scars disfiguring their bodies and talk about the tortures they underwent. Men and women movingly recount their nightmares in prison, and Haroun is careful not to present too many voices, thereby ensuring the stories avoid becoming a numbing litany.
Only once does the director bring victim and torturer together, with Abaïfouta between them. The meeting outside is neither reconciliation nor catharsis, and it’s disturbing to watch the thin, stooped man known as Mahamat the Cameroonian deny any responsibility, using the “I was taking orders” line so convenient for the henchmen of tyrants. The man he tortured, much taller and almost regal, refuses to accept the excuse, and when Mahamat offers a very half-hearted apology (probably spoken for the camera), neither victim nor viewer will let him off so easily.
After 23 years in comfortable exile in Senegal, Habré was finally arrested, and the trial began in July 2015. Of course, the former dictator refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court, and his personal website, full of expected lies and outrage, still boasts a disturbingly high Google ranking. For the people of Chad, bringing him to justice is a major step forward; hopefully it will also send a powerful message to other African despots. The film’s classic, unadorned visuals contribute to a sense of the ineluctability of truth, furthered by straightforward editing guaranteeing that each story becomes a powerful testimony.