This year's Human Rights Watch International
Film Festival includes a documentary focusing on the group's lead attorney,
Reed Brody, whose job is to prosecute human rights abusers. Working without
government support, but with an equally determined former Chadian political
prisoner, Brody campaigns over several years and three continents to bring
Chad's former dictator to trial.
"The Dictator Hunter," by Dutch filmmaker Klaartje Quirijns, begins with Human Rights Watch lawyer Reed Brody on a trip to Chad. That's the Central African nation where Hissène Habré took power in 1982 with U.S. backing. Habré founded a secret police force and began imprisoning and murdering thousands, according to human rights organizations and the U.S. State Department.
"If you kill one person, you go to jail," Brody remarks in the film. "You kill 40 people, they put you in an insane asylum. You kill 40-thousand people -- you get a comfortable exile with your bank account in another country. And that's what we want to change here."
Former Chadian political prisoner Souleymane Guengueng is the other main character in Qurijins' film, which screened at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York. After Hissène Habré was ousted in 1990, and fled to a luxurious exile in Senega, Guengueng was released from prison. He founded a victims' organization and collected testimony until threats drove him from Chad. He says that only his faith in God helped him endure his own torture. "I live very much in God," Guengueng says. " I pray all the time. I say in this situation, God knows why I am here in this jail."
Quirijns met Guengueng and Brody together at the New York office of Human Rights Watch as they planned their campaign to bring Habre to justice.
"I immediately saw a film in these two men, one believing in the law, the other in God, but both extremely driven," Quirijns says. "I thought from a dramatic point of view that it's really interesting that you have this black guy here stuck in New York, can't see his family, is without any papers. And they are chasing together this dictator, but the action takes place in Africa."
In one scene in Chad, a former prisoner describes how every night a few people died or were taken to be executed. Later, a group of local women visit the field where the dead were buried by other prisoners. They are wailing and holding their hands above their hands.
"Where they held up their hands [that] is actually a sign that they are really upset and really angry," Quirijns said. " I was watching there, and I couldn't believe what was happening in front of the camera. And also you have to realize that most women have never been there and maybe they had family members or husbands buried there, so it was an extremely emotional moment for them."
Most of the action of "The Dictator Hunter" centers on the international legal campaign to bring Hissène Habré to trial. After an African Union ruling, Senegal agreed two years ago to try the former Chadian dictator -- but has not yet done so. Reed Brody and Souleymane Guengueng say that when it finally happens, it will put other human rights abusers on notice that even if governments do not pursue them, their victims will.
Film clips courtesy of Eyeswide Films