Sunday, March 05, 2006

Imagining the Real—Rwandan Genocide On Film

"What fascinates me most in existence is the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real."—Philip Gourevitch.

I borrow the title for this entry from Philip Gourevitch's book, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, a chilling account of the 1994 genocide and aftermath in Rwanda.

At this time last year Terry George's Hotel Rwanda was nominated for three Oscars. It won none but it certainly inspired me to consider other films in the pipeline or in distribution exploring the genocidal massacre that took place in Africa little over a decade ago. This year Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman's documentary short God Sleeps in Rwanda is nominated for an Oscar and I hope it wins! It's a short film focusing not so much on the genocide itself as its aftermath. Female survivors of that tragedy have had to not only reconstruct their personal lives but their communities as well, rebuilding families, roads, homes, taking on professions that until then had been denied women and being afforded that opportunity only because most of the men are dead; Rwanda has been left 70% female. Emancipated by default, the documentary implies promise in the role of women reconstructing Rwanda, even as it targets the strategic murder of Tutsi men and rape of Tutsi women as a genocidal program of racial cleansing. Some of these raped women offer accounts of becoming infected with AIDS or becoming pregnant with unwanted children. The moral choices required of these young women—who have already suffered so much—is sobering even as it is inspiring. Acquaro and Sherman's vigilant determination to maintain focus and to try to summon continuing interest in the plight of Rwanda deserves commendation.

Farai Chideya talks with Kimberlee Acquaro about God Sleeps in Rwanda for NPR. This six-minute audioclip will be of note to those who have already seen the documentary because of its follow-up stories of a couple of the women portrayed, and explains in detail the legislative importance of the war crime trial for rape of the female Minister of Women and Family:

Looking back: In 2001, 100 Days—a low budget film on the subject—was released, but never widely distributed. I've yet to track it down.

Hotel Rwanda. For what it was, and for the palatable information it provided a wide public, Hotel Rwanda succeeded. Performances were sound all around. But this was one of those instances where, knowing how events really went, the fictionalizations proved grating. For example: in the scene where Paul Rusesabagina's wife and family are being evacuated and run into the machete threats, the truth is that her back was actually broken in that encounter. This wouldn't work for the arc of the story, I know, and I understand why genocide must be presented in digestible portions, but, it bothered me for the remainder of the film, eroding at its truthfulness.

The Belgian "randomization" of hutu/tutsi and its horrific consequence was only one of the many bitter facts I sifted from this tragedy. This randomization was admirably and succinctly laid out in the film. I understand that some of these hostilities were indigenous, but how they were exploited through foreign intervention was of necessary focus.

I was pretty much disgusted by Paul Rusesabagina being "summoned" to the White House just so President George Bush could get some pr licks.

Sometimes In April. Haitian director Raoul Peck filmed Sometimes in April. "The monster, says Raoul Peck, doesn't come from nowhere. It is slowly conjured into being, and just about everybody is complicit in its creation. 'You look aside the first time when someone is slapped in public. You don't say anything. The next day, they kill him in front of you and you don't say anything. Then, on the third day, they can come and take your wife and rape your wife. And then it's too late for you to do anything. That is how the monster arrives. It starts with little things."

Geoffrey Macnab interviews Raoul Peck for the Guardian.

Though there were several comments in Macnab's interview of Peck, I was struck by the comment that "the western media in the spring of 1994 was far more preoccupied with the suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain."

Also: "Back in January, Peck held the world premiere of Sometimes in April in a huge stadium in the Rwandan capital of Kigali in front of an audience of thousands of people, many of whom had lost relatives during the massacre. 'I could only imagine making this film if the Rwandans were the first to see it. Whatever the critics say doesn't matter to me. The only people whose judgment I would accept are the Rwandan people.' "

In possibly what is the most cynical, embittered review I have ever read, Jon Jost lambastes Raoul Peck's Sometimes in April for Senses of Cinema.

"For the spectator," he writes, "it lurches this direction and that, a stern slap on the hands here, a soft tear-milking there, a brutal guilt-tripping, a satirical send-up of Western 'human concern' articulated by the henchmen of the White House, all stirred together in an unpalatable mixture which probably fails as politics and certainly fails as art."

Jost continues his tirade: "[T]he spectator, perhaps having been led to a little bit more information than they had had earlier . . . , leaves, soured in spirit, subdued and, if the whole formula works as it should, then will convert this sense of guilt—no, not into meaningful action like refusing to pay their taxes to corrupted governments who did this—but into self-worth. I went and spent two awful hours watching this difficult, unpleasant film about how awful we are (through the prism of people I could relate to: i.e., nice middle-class professionals), and I feel bad, and then I feel good that I felt bad and that certifies my moral worth. And the next time a Rwanda-type thing rises—which is basically all the time, which is right now—the worthy spectator will do what they did the last time around: nada."

And that's just for starters. Jost then takes on the whole notion of "fiction" and the impossibility of cinema to truthfully account for human atrocities. Ultimately, Jost thinks Sometimes in April makes good (H)BO, as in bullshit, as in box office.

Other reviewers have been equally unkind, though none as committed to regaling against Western civilization as we know it. Not only does Jost take on Peck's project, but, it's Berlinale setting, the Eisenman Holocaust Memorial, the Lieberskind Jewish Museum, and any film project that proposes fiction can tell truth more readily than non-fiction, or that purports to some high end when it is nothing more than thinly-veiled "opportunistic careerism, a social climb literally over the piles of bodies of others not so long ago departed."

One part of me applauds Jost for his unflinching approach and wants to say his pessimism is redeemed by its honesty, but another part of me simply pities him for despising the human race so completely. Certainly a distinct read amongst the reviews on this subject matter.

Amy Taubin's Art & Industry column for Film Comment, focusing on Raoul Peck's Sometimes In April, describes how the film's scraping noises unnerved her. She gives a fairly favorable review to the film.

Taubin likewise praises the HBO website for its additional commentary, namely interviews with the director, actor Idris Elba, and HBO representative Sam Martin, plus its Human Rights Watch information.

I finally caught Sometimes in April as part of a free HBO package last month. As Taubin described, it's structured as a Cain and Abel story. And what struck her, struck me. There is a scene where the UN is evacuating all white citizens. The Rwandans are begging to be included in the evacuation and are, of course, denied. The UN trucks load up, head out, and no sooner do they leave than Hutus begin appearing out of everywhere, carrying clubs and machetes, sharpening the blades by scraping them against the street as they approach their victims. I haven't been able to get that image and that sound out of my mind. The massacre of the Catholic school girls was also horrifically portrayed. I was glad to get a glimpse of how the witness hearings were conducted. All in all, I appreciate the HBO production, even though admittedly the score is saccharine and manipulative, undermining the film's credence.

Shake Hands With The Devil. "Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire can still smell Rwanda. He wrote about this in his 2003 memoir, Shake Hands With the Devil, and it's written on his face too—the unrelenting stench of the 800,000 bodies that rotted in mass graves, filled the streets of Kigali and dammed the Kagera River over 100 bloodstained days in 1994. Dallaire knows the smell because he was there, from August 1993 until September 1994, as the sometimes Head of Mission and full-time Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. What transpired, he would later write, was "a story of betrayal, failure, naivete, hatred, genocide, war, inhumanity and evil"—one which Dallaire didn't merely observe, but in which he played a leading role. He is, as many now know, one of modern history's great and tragic witnesses, not just for what he saw, but for his accurate prediction of it and his ultimate inability to prevent it. He is, simply put, the boy who cried genocide. And it has taken much of the world the better part of a decade to respond to his call."

Peter Raymont filmed a documentary by the same name and Scott Foundas reviews Shake Hands With The Devil for the L.A. Weekly.

Raymont writes: "Shake Hands With the Devil could hardly be more different in its approach than Terry George's Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda, an unrepentantly Hollywoodized portrait of the approximately 1,200 fortunate Rwandans who found refuge within the walls of Kigali's posh Hotel Des Milles Collines. Of course, that story is also true, and the film deserves credit, at least, for not telling its African story through a white interlocutor, a la Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom. But in its narrowly focused rush to inspire, Hotel Rwanda trivializes its protagonists by turning their plight into a succession of false climaxes and false hopes, a schematic game of will they or won't they make it out alive. In Toronto, where it was possible to see both films virtually back to back, the disparity was particularly telling. Where Hotel Rwanda (notwithstanding Don Cheadle's fine, honest performance) offers us a spoonful of sugar to make the genocide go down, Shake Hands With the Devil fills our nostrils with the same pungent aroma that still haunts Dallaire."

Shooting Dogs. I haven't seen this one yet. BBC Films production cast John Hurt in a David Belton's film about a Catholic priest who struggles to save the lives of Tutsi children. Variety's Adam Dawtrey wrote-up the upcoming March premiere of Shooting Dogs in Kigali, Rwanda. Aside from its "rougher edge" (compared to Hotel Rwanda), Dawtrey nonetheless affirms its "sense of place, a raw authenticity and an unflinching desire to testify to the reality of what happened."

The film, after touring Africa, will be seen in Britain and France but has no distributor for North America. Evidently, according to distrib execs, American interest in the subject is already exhausted. "The irony," Dawtrey emphasizes, "is that this Western indifference to Africa is the very subject of this movie. In a key scene, a British news reporter explains how she cried every day in Bosnia but hasn't shed a tear in Rwanda, because the victims are African and she cannot identify with them. This failure of empathy, the movie suggests, is why the West wouldn't intervene to stop the genocide." (Variety, January 30-February 5, 2006, vol. 401:11, p. 14.)

The Night of Truth. Another fictionalized account of the Rwandan massacre—The Night of Truth—is described as having "Shakespearean resonances" and is the first ever sub-Saharan African feature to be directed by a woman, Fanta Régina Nacro. Philip Kemp writes it up for the September 2005 issue of Sight and Sound:

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. Currently a French-Candadian production of Gil Courtemanche's novel A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is ramping up to be filmed, possibly in Rwanda.

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