The Human Rights Watch fest profiles one of the organization’s own in The Dictator Hunter, which trails HRW lawyer Reed Brody as he strives to close an international-justice dragnet around Hissène Habré, known as “the African Pinochet” for his brutal (and Reagan-backed) rule in Chad in the 1980s. Turning down a high-profile UN human-rights job in 2004 because the Habré case seems to be coming to a head, Brody, scruffily affable but brandishing the professionally practical motto “I don’t trust anybody,” strategizes and commiserates with Chadian victims-rights activists while seeking the support of officials in Senegal, where Habré has set up a comfortable exile and procured as many allies as his stolen fortune can buy. Klaartje Quirijns’s documentary captures the restless pace and commitment of Brody’s crusading, and fully absorbs the testimony of the dictator’s victims; their sequences don’t feel dutifully inserted because they’re convincingly essential to the lawyer’s drive. Brody’s Chadian contact Souleyman Guengueng, jobless in New York and recovering the sight he nearly lost in one of Habré’s prisons, is still sufficiently of another world that he asks of an office photo of Martin Luther King, “Is that the man we’re going to see?” No, he and Brody see a congressman who shrugs that the U.S. can’t work with the International Criminal Court for fear that American leaders will be indicted for Iraq-related crimes. Another former Chadian prisoner details the regime’s “Arbatachar” torture method—prolonged hog-tying with the danger of limb loss—and recalls choosing to lie upon corpses in crowded cells for the relief of their cool surfaces. After this telling of the unshowable, Dictator Hunter builds to a guardedly happy ending that remains incomplete: the trial of Habré seemingly on the horizon at the film’s 2006 end has yet to occur.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 16—30.