There are many broken and beaten bodies we come across in famed Chadian filmmaker Mahamet-Saleh Horoun's Hissein Habre, A Chadian Tragedy. Some individuals sport scars around the neck area, some walk with a limp or have lost any stability. Some cannot even walk at all and must be carried. The state of these individuals' bodies is only the beginning of understanding their broken and beaten souls having to endure decades of pain. Souls waiting for any sort of retribution uncertain of arrival. Chad is a country I am substantially ignorant of except for its distinct name that shares its usage with a slightly common English name. Admittedly, I don't peruse the annals of infinite knowledge on the internet or anywhere in between to better understand Chad; it is a nation and culture that has never entered the orbit of my own awareness. Thankfully, the Dryden Theatre is celebrating the art of Horoun all throughout February. If there is a chance for me to grab a fleeting glimpse of something incredibly unfamiliar...it is now. A Chadian Tragedy is Horoun's most recent film, a documentary, which steps outside the director's norm of fiction films. He enters the charred and battered history of the Hissein Habre dictatorship which ran from 1982-1990. During the rule, which was backed by the USA and France in response to Lybia's Gaddafi regime, some 40,000 people were killed for being thought of as ideological opposition.
This sort of story for a documentary is becoming more common. Think carefully, and you may connect this film with another indicting excursion into Cold War hellfire; The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence beat strongly with unthinkable chaos and torment. You can also link it to Nostalgia For the Light and The Pearl Button. Like The Look of Silence, A Chadian Tragedy is all about the victims. Those men and women, crippled with physical and mental abuse so many years ago, are living shells of their former lives as survivors. And through surviving there is this agonizing suspension where they must wait to see if the perpetrator will ever be punished. Clement, himself a survivor, is our surrogate, our conduit of sympathy. Running a program that brings together the people left tarnished by the dictatorship, Clement is also the main character in the film that we follow from one subject to the next. Though I would not know the alternative but it might be the reason why conversations with the victims are so casual yet so revealing. Interviews are barely in traditional format but more constructed conversationally. The camera is a concerned observer but we figure out that even the camera is not the important part.
Incredible stories of survival are woven in anecdotes of permanent damage. One man in particular, who was a hotshot smuggler with five wives, can hardly move and speak now, using a cane to fumble from one place to the next. Whatever the brutalizing police had done to him ignited an earthquake to rip the fabric of his own perception of life. Yet he keeps on living and, even more so, he strives to walk without the use of a cane. What we witness him do in the end of the film, despite his past debauchery, is uplifting, a showcase of how much justice means even twenty-six years later. Another woman talks of her husband who was taken from her and her family one night, never to return. It is a disgusting thing to happen, never to say goodbye, never realizing a sense of finality let alone dignity for someone you love and respect. These people saw death all around them, and some of them contemplate on the nature of the brutal death and the way it severs the souls of the departed from those that want to mourn.
Sometimes it is even tempting to question their resolve through the perception of our privileged state: I don't understand how one can live like this, with such terrible memories...I don't know if I would be strong enough. Yet, their presence, their words and thoughts, their tears and yells, resonate with an affirmation that good things can happen even in the most grueling of situations. One scene seats a victim on one side of a bench and a former policeman who arrested the victim on the other side of the bench; Clement sits in the middle. We watch as an awkward, dramatic, and powerful moment erupts as perpetrator weakly begs for forgiveness.
The first process to help someone is to listen so that we can understand where they come from, where they are now, and where they want to go. You will not learn much on the politics and policies surrounding and embodying Hessein Habre and his regime in this film, but you will learn a lot about specific stories and memories. Testimony is powerful and it is cemented in Horoun's documentation. As mentioned earlier, the camera, though capturing these moments, is not important, what is important are these survivors talking to each other, connecting, and strengthening a bond. Although on the outside, we may still see those broken and beaten bodies as those scars will remain. Nevertheless, we may leave the theatre knowing that some minds may be at ease, some souls reaching a calming posture. We then can carry that hope and reinforce our sense of self...that's the least we could do in our position.