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Death penalty film stirs emotions – Cannes film shines light on Chad’s ‘torture factories’

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Czech model Petra Nemcova poses as she arrives on May 15, for the screening of the film ‘Mal de Pierres (From the Land of the Moon)’ at the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France. (AFP)
Czech model Petra Nemcova poses as she arrives on May 15, for the screening of the film ‘Mal de Pierres (From the Land of the Moon)’ at the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France. (AFP)

CANNES, France, May 16, (AFP): Before he made his new film about the death penalty, Boo Junfeng sat down to tea with some of Singapore’s retired hangmen. He also talked to the priests and imams who helped condemned prisoners make their last walk to the gallows. And most difficult of all, the young filmmaker spent years trying to reach through the curtain of shame to families who had lost fathers and sons to the hangman’s rope. But it was only after Boo, whose film premieres at the Cannes Film Festival Monday, met one particularly “humane” executioner that he had an epiphany. He realised that no movie has ever dealt with the whole horrible business from the perspective of the man who pulls the lever.

“I had already started to write (the film) but after I met the first hangman I couldn’t write for three months. What completely threw me was how much I enjoyed his company,” said Boo. “He was not like I thought. He was likeable, charismatic, grandfatherly jocular and open about what he did. He took pride in the almost caring way he looked after the prisoners trying to make it as humane as he could, and I realised how difficult that was. “He really shook up my ideas and forced me to rethink everything.” So Boo took his film — which he toiled over for five years — one step further.

For “Apprentice” has a shocking twist. It is the story of a young man who ended up learning the executioner’s trade from the man who opened the trapdoor on his own father. More surprising still is the intensity of the almost father-son relationship that develops between the young prison guard and the hangman. “He is in some ways searching for his father,” Boo said. “And in doing that he finds this man. What I was going for was human truth. I didn’t want to make it an activist film.” The death penalty is nevertheless a hot political issue in Singapore and in neighbouring Indonesia, particularly when foreigners have fallen foul of strict anti-drug smuggling laws.

The execution of seven foreigners in Bali last year — including two Australians and a mentally ill Brazilian — sparked an international outcry, and several others, including a British woman and a Frenchman, are still on death row there. Boo said he began his research with the book “Once a Jolly Hangman” which features Darshan Singh, Singapore’s chief executioner for nearly 50 years who once executed 18 men in one day. Its British author Alan Shadrake was arrested the morning after the book’s Singapore launch in 2010 and was held for a month in Changi prison for insulting the country’s judiciary.

He had criticised the way he claimed the death penalty was disproportionately applied to the poor, while well-connected criminals and wealthy foreigners escaped the noose. Boo shot the prison scenes in disused prisons in Australia to avoid controversy in the tiny city state, where an estimated 95 percent of the population still support the death penalty.

Boo, 32, one of a new wave of talented Singapore filmmakers, said his friends who are against the death penalty “may be disappointed by the film”, which is showing in the Certain Regard section at Cannes. There is a heart-stopping moment in a new documentary about the survivors of Chadian dictator Hissene Habre’s torture chambers, when one of the torturers kneels down in front of his victim and begs for forgiveness.

“I had to follow orders,” mumbles “Mahamat the Cameroonian” — now a broken man himself living on the streets as an outcast. “Then why did you have to beat me so badly?” his victim asks, handing the former gendarme the rubber pipe he used to flail his prisoner’s leg to a pulp. “Your superiors told you to stop, but you went on and on,” adds the man, who lost the leg.


The scene is typical of the muted but unflinching encounters that fill “Hissein Habre, A Chadian Tragedy”, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s quietly dignified film about one of Africa’s least known mass killings, which premieres at the Cannes Film Festival Monday.

Some 40,000 people were murdered during Habre’s eight-year reign of terror, a Chadian commission concluded, while the West looked the other way, more worried about the Cold War and Moummar Gaddafi in neighbouring Libya.

Habre was their ally and American and French money even paid for the country’s political police, the feared DDS, to torture on an industrial scale, said Clement Abaifouta, who leads a survivors’ group in the capital N’Djamena.

The group has spent 15 years trying to bring the former rebel leader — who was deposed in 1990 — to trial. Habre will finally be judged later this month at a special tribunal in neighbouring Senegal, where he had fled into exile.

One of the victims featured in the film, Adimatcho Djamai, who was tortured so badly he spent more than two decades on the flat of his back in a corrugated iron shack, died the day he was due to testify at Habre’s trial.

Haroun told AFP he wanted to cast a light on what he calls “this genocide” largely ignored by the outside world “because it was some business of the blacks” carried out behind closed doors.

The director uses Abaifouta as his narrator, visiting his fellow survivors and gently coaxing the horrific stories of their torture from them.

A hugely cultured man, he was chosen by the guards to bury those who died around him in the packed cells from hunger, thirst and torture.

Sometimes he would wake to find another inmate dead beside him and “be glad that it meant a little more space. That is what we were reduced to” he said. “We were beasts.”

“I had to pull my life together with a rake” afterwards, he said.

Former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre (C) is escorted by prison guards into the courtroom for the first proceedings of his trial by the Extraordinary African Chambers in Dakar on July 20, 2015 Haroun said most of the people who were rounded up by Habre’s DDS henchmen “were innocent. They were arrested for no reason, the random victims of a bloodthirsty regime.”

One, Robert Gambier, trying to explain the terrible things done to them, thought Habre might have wanted to appease the spirits with human “sacrifice so he could hold onto power”.

Haroun — Chad’s foremost filmmaker whose film “Grigris” competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2013 — told AFP he wanted to see “if was it possible to still live together after such monstrosities. Can survivors still find a place for forgiveness in their hearts?”

While “Mahamat the Cameroonian” is forgiven by his victim, another survivor Haroun filmed was convinced his former torturer would one day try to murder him so he wouldn’t have to see pass him in the street again.

Asked by Abaifouta if he would kill the man if he had the chance, he said he would.

While the victims pray that Habre will be punished by the judges in Dakar, they are under no illusions that it will make their pain any more bearable.


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