Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s films always hit the viewer like breaking glass; there is no escape from the harsh reality of life in Chad. This latest film is no exception, but is all the more powerful because we know that this is not a fiction. Haroun painstakingly seeks out tens of victims, who each recount their suffering in harrowing detail. Victims who more than thirty years later are unable to walk, hear or see, victims who still bear deep scars, victims whose bones were broken and re-set by fellow prison inmates, women who have never spoken of their appalling secrets of sexual abuse.
Hissene Habré ruled Chad from 1982-90 – as some have called it, Chad’s darkest days. When he seized power, the country had recently unified with Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya, whose troops occupied a large swathe of desert in the north. Chad had been wracked with a series of violent rebellions since the 1960s and three presidents had been overthrown in seven years. Habré was threatened on all sides by his rivals but took the defence of his position to uniquely cruel and despotic ends. Backed by the US and France, because of his staunch opposition and willingness to take on Qaddafi’s army head-on, Habré was able to set up a system of secret police and prisons which were used to suppress dissent. It was in these jails that Haroun’s victims suffered their terrible abuse and torture.
Haroun has chosen not to delve into the history of the establishment of the EAC (Extraordinary African Chambers) – the court set up in 2015 to try Habré – and the film does not explore the vital but complex details of the many failed attempts to bring Habré to justice. Instead he has focused almost entirely on the victims’ stories, a powerful choice as the EAC has been widely praised for its success in giving a voice to the victims and bringing justice closer to the people. The court was established and endorsed by the African Union, and has been touted as a possible alternative to the increasingly embattled ICC. Chadian lawyers (one of whom Jacqueline Moudeina, features in the film) defended Chadian victims on African soil. An impressive sensitisation campaign was held across Chad as the trial took place, helping ordinary people to understand the process.
And it is entirely in keeping with this philosophy that Haroun has been able to use his position to tell the story so sensitively. As arguably Chad’s most famous son it is obvious that he was able to gain the trust of victims in a way that may have evaded parachuting foreign journalists. Although some of the film’s attempts at ‘reconciliation’ between victims and torturers at times seem forced – after all pro-Habré and anti-Habré have been living side by side in Chad without any serious attempts to bring closure for more than thirty years – it is the rawness and honesty of the emotions which is the most striking feature of this film. People’s lives have been ruined, and although Habré was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in May this year, he never gave the slightest indication during the trial that he felt any remorse. Chad has not yet been able to move on.
By Celeste Hicks
After the screening we will be joined by Celeste Hicks, Kevin Jon Heller, Simon Massey and Kirsten Ainley for a discussion exploring the legacy of dictatorships and the future for transnational justice in Africa.
Buy tickets to see Hissene Habre: A Chadian Tragedy
Thur 3 Nov | 18:30 | Hackney Picturehouse BOOK NOW