Documentarians have long struggled with how to depict the aftermaths of atrocities. Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” spreads its interviews out over more than nine hours, implicitly acknowledging the limitations of making a Holocaust film even as it serves as a record of survivors’ memories. Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” goes for the throat: The director shows the former members of Indonesian death squads re-enacting their crimes.
In considering the case of Hissène Habré (also known as Hissein), who as president of Chad from 1982 to 1990 led a murderous, dictatorial government, “Hissein Habré, a Chadian Tragedy” doesn’t go to any extremes. It’s more of a document than a documentary; calling it cinema seems like an error of categorization.
Although the director, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (“A Screaming Man”), who was raised in Chad but left during Mr. Habré’s rule and now lives in France, provides a voice-over, his authorial presence is minimal. The bulk of the film consists of survivors of Mr. Habré’s reign recounting their arrests and what happened to them afterward. The interviews can be dry and formal (names, ages and dates of arrest). Many victims are still suffering the physical tolls of torture.
Mr. Habré was arrested in 2013 in Senegal, where he was living in exile, and the movie was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2016, shortly before Mr. Habré was convicted of war crimes. That foreknowledge provides some context for the interviews, most of which are conducted by Clément Abaïfouta, the leader of a group that pressed for Mr. Habré’s prosecution.
The tensest scene involves an effort by Mr. Abaïfouta to broker a reconciliation. Mr. Abaïfouta sits with a man who was arrested by Mr. Habré’s political police force, and with the policeman the former prisoner says arrested and tortured him. Then Mr. Abaïfouta asks the victim if it’s possible to offer forgiveness. The former Habré police force member attempts to play down his actions (“I was a subordinate,” he says), and likens himself to a dog who was trained to attack.
In response, the victim urges him to “be a man” — not a dog — “at all times.”
Continue reading the main story