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La captive du désert (1990)

A Frenchwoman is taken hostage by an African tribe for months - can she escape ?


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Complete credited cast:
La captive
Dobi Koré
Fadi Taha
Dobi Wachinké
Badei Barka
Atchi Wahi-Li
Daki Koré
Isai Koré
Mohamed Ixa
Brahim Barkaï
Hadji Azouma
Barkama Hadji
Sidi Hadji Maman


Based on the ordeal of Francoise Claustre, who was taken hostage by the Toubous, a nomadic tribe in the African desert. Written by L.H. Wong <lhw@sfs.org.sg>

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based on true story | See All (1) »







Release Date:

18 April 1990 (France)  »

Also Known As:

Prisoner of the Desert  »

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Did You Know?


The movie is based on the actual story of Françoise Claustre, who was taken hostage in Chad by the rebel nomadic tribes of Toubous and Anakasas. She was held captive for almost three years, from April 1974 to January 1977. Two other persons were captured with her: Christoph Staewen (who was rapidly liberated against ransom) and Marc Combe (who escaped in May 1975). Two other persons were captured later on: Commander Galopin (who tried to liberate Françoise, but was captured in August 1974 and executed in April 1975) and Pierre Claustre (Françoise's husband, who tried to negotiate and was captured in August 1975). Françoise and Pierre Claustre were liberated together against ransom and after negotiation. See more »


Referenced in Afriques: Comment ça va avec la douleur? (1996) See more »

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Contemplative and moving. Desert as an artistic subject
14 December 2016 | by See all my reviews

As a director, Raymond Depardon is renowned for his varied and excellent documentaries (he also is a photographer and journalist). He did direct a few fictional features, yet they are based on real facts or they have a documentary style.

"Captive of the desert" is fictional but based on the true story of a woman, Françoise Claustre, who was held hostage for almost three years by rebel tribes in Chad during the 1970s. Depardon actually met and interviewed Claustre while she was captive. The resulting footage had an important impact on public opinion and Claustre was liberated a bit less than a year afterwards. (For more information, see the Trivia section on IMDb.)

Fourteen years after meeting her in Chad, Depardon directed "Captive of the desert". These events almost constitute a case study of how life and images interact: on the one hand, his filmed interview partly triggered her liberation; on the other, the actual facts nourished his movie.

Nevertheless, Depardon's ambition with this movie is not exactitude, but art. Notably, it is a stylised metaphor about time. Also, the captive is shown in an isolated environment with limited communication, while Claustre had regular contacts with villagers. Last, there is a focus on magnificent landscapes, contrasting with the harsh captivity. Let's review the respective themes: time, solitude, nature.


TIME. We lose track of time. First, there are no indications of the period: day of the week, month of the year. Second, transitions between scenes are elliptical: is a scene happening on the same day as the previous one, or the day after, or more? Third, we frequently have no clue of the time of the day: the sun is generally high, we rarely see dawn or sunset.

It seems time has stopped: the captivity feels endless. Shots are still like time: there are no camera movements. They stretch to their limits. Dialogues are extremely reduced. The rare sounds are repetitive: music on the radio, soldier playing an oud (small guitar), songs, wind.

There are two notable exceptions to this setting: the captive tries to escape; a plane comes to fetch her at the very end. Both scenes are all the more compelling as they contrast with the rest of the movie: they happen at night, noises are aggressive (the captive's footsteps, the plane engine), there is a time indication (before the last scene, the rebel chief says: "Tonight the plane will fetch you"). These breaches in the overall stillness highlight the captive's emotions during both scenes: as spectators we are excited as she is.

SOLITUDE. There is an implacable cultural gap between the captive and the surrounding environment. Discussions between natives are not translated: as the captive, we do not understand what they say. There are a few talks between the captive and others, however they are one-way and limited. We see some events (dance, song, ritual), yet they remain mysterious. Because he knows Africa very well, Depardon avoids both a dry ethnological vision and, reversely, a neat "postcard" view: these events are naturally shown, as the captive sees them.

Conversely, the captive is a subject of curiosity for the tribe. We do not know how she is called: she is reduced to her captive status. A soldier looks at her book, but reads it upside-down: obviously, he does not understand what is in there. Bewildered women look at the captive's belongings (magazine, notebook, postcards, etc.).

While the captive can establish some contact with women, the relationship with men is conflicting. There is a remarkable scene when she sits in the shadow and is chased by the soldier who silently takes her place: he imposes his power by his only presence.

NATURE. Images of the desert are superb, highlighted by overall silence. Depardon demonstrates his immense talent as a professional photographer. It is the best filming of this element since "Lawrence of Arabia" (Lean, 1962). However, while the latter was an epic using the desert as a dramatic setting, here it is shown at human level.

First, we understand the difficult conditions of a person not used to living there. Every object and activity becomes important and complex: water, food, recipients of different sorts, heat, cold (the blankets), washing oneself, washing clothes, etc.

Second, the desert is at the same time magnificent and menacing. Characters are frequently shown as small elements lost in its immensity. When they are close, they sometimes are dominated by nearby rocks or distant mountains, for instance when the captive sings with the two young girls: mountains perfectly surround them. This children song is also symbolical: the lyrics tell the tale of a "small ship that has never sailed". Later on, a scene illustrates these words: after she escaped, the captive walks in the dunes that look like waves. As the ship, she has "never sailed" in the desert. Hence, shapes and words are echoed by the desert, which encompasses everything.

The movie surprisingly closes on the plane fetching the captive: we do not see her going away. One cannot escape the desert: this experience will stay with her forever.


"Captive of the Desert" is beautiful, contemplative and moving. If you are sensitive to the poetry of desert landscapes, it is a definite must-see. Be warned, it is very slow. You need to be absorbed in its atmosphere to appreciate it: hence it probably needs to be seen in a cinema theatre rather than at home.

Regardless, a movie with such empathy for its character is rare: we feel what the captive feels, we perceive her dire conditions, we are immersed with her in the desert. What Depardon gives away in historic accuracy, we find back in emotions. Sandrine Bonnaire playing the main role is one of the best actresses of her generation and admirably supports the entire film. "Captive of the Desert" is more than a movie: it is an experience.

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