AiW Guest: Dare Dan
Have you seen Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012), the gruelling tale of the annihilation of communists in 1965/66 Indonesia? Well, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Hissene Habré: A Chadian Tragedy is such a story; no less provoking, disturbing, chilling, and not so different in its strategy of exploring history with little or no archival footage. The difference is mostly geographical: the former happened in Indonesia, and the later, here, in recent memory—Chad 1982-1990.
Mahamat-Saleh, who won the Grand Jury prize in Cannes 2010 with his film A Screaming Man, explores in his latest offering the horror unleashed on the people of Chad under the dictator Hissene Habré. During Habré’s rule, forty thousand Chadians died, and many others suffered grave physical and psychological injuries. We, the film’s viewers and witnesses, are shown how, using Clement Abaifouta (who was also a victim of the time, and now the chairperson of the Association of the Victims of the Hissene Habré’s Regime), as an intermediary and interviewer, Mahamat-Saleh follows the path of reconciliation between perpetrators and victims, and ultimately, seeks justice against Habré. Moving from house to house, we are left appalled by the revelations of what is left of men and women broken by oppression as they describe gruesome ordeals.
Three men sit on a bench—the scene is seemingly peaceful; the atmosphere is reflective and sober; grave silence surrounds the men. The one on the left, who is physically the biggest of the three, has lost a limb; he walks into the scene in crutches. The man on the right, fragile, old and worn, has the first man’s lost limb, but not anymore, he chopped it many years ago during the terrifying reign of Chad’s dictator whom he had served as a ruthless lackey. Clément Abaifouta, sits in the middle. With accusations, counter accusations, denial and appeasement, the three movingly discuss the lost limb.
While Oppenheimer, in his films on Indonesia, exerts efforts in bringing perpetrators to face the weight of their crimes through various cinematic stunts, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun did not have to go extra miles to make perpetrators realise and feel guilty of their deeds; by mere conversation, and through the pursuit of justice and reconciliation, he brings culprits to kneel before their victims. How he is able to do this can be traced to the political atmosphere in the wake of Habré’s prosecution, which is the period in which the film is set.
And unlike in Oppenheimer’s Act of Killing, where the political system which carried out the heinous crimes still reigns supreme in government, the political atmosphere around Habré—who took refuge for 23 years in Senegal, where he was eventually sentenced for war crimes—has lost its grip on the populace. Perpetrators in A Chadian Tragedy are no more proud of their crimes; they no more inspire terror in the society. But they still live in that society, breathing and communing. One may therefore be tempted to ask, even with horrors of Rwanda still fresh in mind: what is it like for an amputee to live next door to the man who cut off that missing part of him? Or, worse still, how can a woman who was raped and had her husband killed survive with the perpetrator living just across the street?
Oppenheimer’s earlier film, Art, is the exploration of conflict. In fact, in my view, art is creating a platform to engage conflict. In Hissene Habré: A Chadian Tragedy, as well as in Openheimer’s The Act of Killing, I have seen the most daring forms of art presentation: bringing perpetrators of horrific crimes to face their victims as the latter tell stories behind a broken psyche, a blacked-out eye, a long-stretched scar, a totally damaged body and irredeemably torn soul.
Hissene Habré: A Chadian Tragedy screened at Ake Festival 2016.
Dare Dan is a freelance writer and a spoken-word poet. He is a member of the Lagos Film Society and writes for the Lagos Film Review. His writings have appeared on Naij.com, olisa.tv and musicinafrica.net. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria. Twitter handle: @damilaredan121.
Mahama-Saleh Haroun is a film director from Chad who lives in France.