More than ever, the images of memory matter. Like former centuries but with an upsurge of the technical, the twentieth has piled up atrocities in the most varied situations, but always legitimized by a political aim. Therefore, what matters in films cannot to simply represent them to remind what man is capable of: we have known for a long time that there is a beast within him. Saturating images with the reminder of these atrocities only makes us desperate without mobilizing. What matters is looking for what made them possible in order to fight against the perpetuation of the barbarity. A popular media by excellence, films can fulfill a great a role in this respect. For they have the emotional potential to give the true measure of man, that of his surpassing of himself.
As Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah (1985) points out; any historical reconstitution film forms new archives that will serve as a constructed memory. In the absence of real documents, which are nowhere to be found since the executers carry out their dirty work on the sly, these reconstitution images banalize the horror and lessen the historical scope. The memory of reality becomes the – necessarily reductive – one that the screen offers. Moreover, the more you show plain horror, the more you put the viewer in the pernicious and manipulative fascination of voyeurism.
In Chad, the abuses committed by the political police of Hissène Habré’s regime in the 80s were terrible, yet the country hasn’t had the possibility to come to terms with it through a reflection on memory. One understands Issa Serge Coelo’s desire to fulfill this necessity and Tartina City is in this respect a brave and highly respectable film. It depicts Koulbou, always dressed in shirts as red as the blood he sheds. This torturer orchestrates the imprisonment and torture of citizens, randomly arrested, without any evidence, and often without any reason, in dirty basements built out of a concreted-over pool, which the film reconstituted for the needs of the shoot. Unlike what television states in the film when evoking their rumored existence, these basements did exist and what Tartina City describes is unfortunately true. The imprisoned men and women were fed with « Tartina », a disgusting mixture of bread and lamb intestines killed by their torturers.
How to avoid the traps of reconstitution works mentioned above? How to transgress simple evocation to provoke a debate leading to a reflection on memory? A distance is necessary. Coelo creates this distance in several ways. First, with the intervention of a positive female character, generally dressed in a life evoking yellow, Koulbou’s second wife; mistreated by her rival and suspect in Koulbou’s eyes for not sharing the depravity of the conniving domination he has with his first wife. Then, by using green filters to film the inside of the basements like those ultrasensitive sights that pierce the obscurity. Last but not least, with bubbles: Koulbou loves to make soap bubbles and the film shows him after his crimes travelling in his bubbles in N’Djamena’s sky. His gym movements also become a slow and aerial choreography reminiscent of T’aï Chi, in the same way that the legionnaires’ physical exercises in Clare Denis’ Beau Travail looked like a ritual ballet. He does talk about airing when referring to the suspects’ elimination to make room in « Tartina City ». And it is also an aerial vision that the recurring shots of the sparrows flying in circles in the Sahel convey, a shot on which the film also ends.
These distancing elements and this resort to metaphysical poetry fortunately prevent any identification and invite the viewer to physically experience the crimes committed by Koulbou. It is from the moment that the spectator accepts not understanding that he/she reaches another degree of perception. He/she therefore reaches unknown borders, those invisible rhythms that rule the fascination of evil.
Koulbou is then a highly ambiguous character. In his desire to avoid the clichéd image of the bad guy, Coelo makes him heartless and impotent but also sensitive, looking for the pleasure he cannot reach with women in cruelty. He thus offers a human vision of power, Koulbou’s unlimited cynicism and aggressiveness coming from the intrinsic frustration of the vicious circle that makes his world go round. Therefore, he dreams of himself in bubbles, sheltered from the world but dominating it. This evocation widens the topic: it is not only a victim / executer relationship but also a cycle of barbarity that is represented, and gives the film its universal dimension of a reflection upon the practice of violence.
As for the victims, they are treated differently. First, with a plot inspired by action films. The arrests, imprisonments, executions and journalist Adoum Baroum’s escape are not treated in a chronological order, the play on flashbacks making suspense possible as the viewer fears seeing what he/she has already learnt come actually happen. Then by dealing with their singular story in a documentary style so that their individual testimonies become collective memory.
Are fiction and documentary at odds with one another? The danger would above all be to attempt a generalizing representation supposed to illustrate a system whose reality is very difficult to distinguish. Each person tells a different story: it is through survivors’ or witnesses’ testimonies that the collective dimension can be achieved. Films can speak out for those who could not: the victims. And in this way, give their stolen humanity back. In this respect, by mainly limiting itself to a personal story, Tartina City uses fiction to better evoke the truth. It unveils the historical taboo. By cinematically providing the evidence of abuses, it tries to prevent denial and impunity.
Tartina City is therefore a thrilling film in its aim. Its direction unfortunately prevents it from entirely pulling it off. The scenes of cynicism and torture drag on and repeat instead of cultivating the tact and suggestion that enable the viewer to imagine the horror and to internalize the emotion. The viewer ends up suffocating, fearing the scenes’ repetition like a new ordeal instead of mobilizing his / her faculty of judgment. In depicting the abused bodies too often, the film denies its project of rehumanization and dignity. It is the trap of a reconstitution that mostly aims to show Koulbou’s depravity.
Likewise, the scenes illustrating the contradictions of a system that, despite its all-mighty and repressive police, still has to scheme to corrupt public officials (cf. the 50-50 negotiation in the car) remain too cliché, and eventually redundant.
Finally, the resort to dancing to describe Koulbou’s relation to cruelty needs to lead to a true impression that it his own body that speaks, that this choreographed poetry actually expresses what he only manages to combine in his dirty work since the rest of the world remains unknown to him: energy and Eros. These scenes are too brief, as if not really assumed, to really have such an impact on us. They are erased by the importance given to the realism of the torture scenes, where Koulbou’s perversity does not equal the insanity his character develops. Unlike, for example, Visconti’s The Dammed, the extreme actions it provokes are more perceptible than the deep motives of Koulbou’s alienation. Did the fear of baffling the viewer too much prevent Coelo from taking his intuitive approach to its conclusion? Yet, isn’t the intimate the essence of cinema and the audience’s expectations?
These are questions posed, demanding desires vis-à-vis the director of the beautiful Daresalam rather than criticisms, because, apart from some very good scenes, this uneven but yet important film makes courageous and innovating attempts to address the question of barbarity. The exploration of human complexity that it puts forward and the multiplicity of levels of analysis raise so many debates that its vision imposes.
Translated by Sutarni Riesenmey///Article N° : 6935