Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My Log 227: I catch up with a marvelous film, made six years ago, about the Rwandan genocide

Somehow or other both the Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck, and his almost indescribable film Sometimes in April, about the Rwandan genocide, have escaped my notice, until last night, when the film, made in 2004, was again shown on HBO.

The subject of this genocide seems to be so harrowing, so inexplicable in its demonstration of the depths of insanity to which human beings can fall, as to almost be beyond the powers of anyone to say anything worthwhile about it.

Peck, who has in the past been criticized as a didact, seems to have been the ideal man to make this film, which is far and away better than any other of the several films that have attempted to make the genocide comprehensible. His family fled the Duvalier regime and took up residence in the newly-independent country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Peck was raised and educated, and where they stayed for 25 years. Later he had an intensive specialist education in European universities which made him into a skilled and practiced filmmaker, and at one point he even returned to Haiti and became for three years a minister in one of its failed governments.

With such a background of technical skill and political commitment, and with a record of having produced, directed and written many films of political interest, Peck undertook to try to tell what happened in Rwanda during those 100 days when some 800,000 people were mown down by a band of insane, raging extremists.

Peck based his film on stories he was told by Rwandans about their experiences. Unlike the well-regarded Hotel Rwanda, which dealt mainly with the heroics of a hotel owner who courageously saved many people, but which kept the actual killings at a distance, Peck plunges into the heart of the killings, and to lend perspective to his view, he alternates between the actual events, shown in their full horror, and the talk about them undertaken at the hearings ten years later by the Criminal Tribunal into the Rwandan genocide, that took place in Arusha, Tanzania.

Peck’s story concentrates on brothers who were on contending sides of the dispute: one a member of the radio station that encouraged all Hutus to rise and kill indiscriminately every Tutsi they could find, and the other an army officer, a Hutu, married to a Tutsi, who could not, and did not believe that such a thing could happen, until it was too late.

The first of these was put on trial by the tribunal. He begged his brother to visit him, which he did, reluctantly, thus opening the film audience to argument from the other side, to the pleas of innocence by the instigators of the genocide because they did not, themselves, for the most part, actually kill people.

Outside observers were completely helpless to influence events. Or at least they believed themselves to be, because the foreign powers who had set up the conflict years before did not want to be involved. Under President Clinton’s leadership, the Americans stayed out of it.The film has sequences of a troubled American diplomat played by Debra Winger, arguing with a colleague that since her nation had stood by and accepted the genocide, they bore moral responsibility, if nothing else, for it. Similarly, the Canadian-made film, Shake Hands with the Devil, concentrated on the dilemma of Romeo Dallaire, head of the small United Nations force, whose orders were said to prevent him from acting to put a stop to the events. (His helplessness in this situation apparently drove Dallaire into temporary insanity.)

The genocide is represented in Peck’s film by the intermittent heartless rattle of machine-guns mowing down mobs of helpless people, an ever-present background to many of the scenes on camera as people try to decide what to do to escape their coming deaths. One of the most harrowing scenes comes when a young teacher tells her class of girls that the men approaching will be separating them into Tutsis and Hutus. Slowly, the girls one by one say, “I will go,” until one girl says, “We are sisters, we will all go.” That is what they do, and the response is a horrendous massacre, as a soldier mows them all down without a sign of remorse.

Another terrible scene occurs when some wounded women are given shelter in a home, whose owner says, “You cannot stay here. My husband and son-in-law are out killing, if they come back, they will kill you, too.” So the women struggle to their feet and leave, going out to their certain deaths.

By the time the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi army led by the current president of Rwanda Paul Kagame, marches into the scene, hundreds of people are crouching in swamps, half buried by the fetid waters, awaiting their deaths. “You people in the swamps, you can come out,” shouts a soldier. “Do not be afraid. We are the RPF.”

So the genocide comes to an end. Peck concludes his film with a commentary: “Every year in April, the rains come. Every year in April a haunted emptiness descends on our hearts. Every year in April I remember how quickly life ends.”

The narrator adds that on April 12, 1994 “my wife was killed, my sons were killed, my friend was killed, my daughter was killed some time later.”

A young woman recites the Lord’s Prayer, “…deliver us from evil…”

Like the behaviour of the Germans under the leadership of the Nazis, like the behaviour of the Japanese during the Pacific war, at a lower scale like the behaviour of American soldiers who are recently revealed to have gone shooting people in Afghanistan for sport, these are events that defy our normal codes of morality, decency and possibility.

A few years ago the critic Amy Taubin wrote: “Shot on location in Rwanda, Sometimes in April employed thousands of locals as cast and crew. Much of the film's gravity and grace comes from the fact that the people onscreen are acting out their own national tragedy, they are showing us what happened and trying to make sense of it themselves before our eyes. No one could mistake anyone in this film for a mere extra. Some had experienced the genocide firsthand. Peck explains in an interview that they were always pushing him to go further, to do another take. They told him, ‘Don't worry, we have time to cry. But the rest of the world has to know this story.’ ”

Raoul Peck has made a wonderful effort to expose to us the reality of an event that we simply have to try, somehow, to understand.

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