New films about Rwanda's genocide grapple with the meaning of an event that for Rwandans themselves is far from resolved.
AT THE END of World War II, General Dwight Eisenhower invited a group of Hollywood executives to tour the newly liberated concentration camps. Eisenhower hoped the men might be sufficiently horrified to tell the world what they had witnessed, and the newsreels of emaciated children and heaps of corpses played in American theaters for two months afterward.
A little more than 30 years later, the television miniseries ''Holocaust'' showed how powerful fictionalized representations of the Shoah could be. After the film premiered in 1978, interest in the subject soared in America, and in Germany public reaction to the series caused the government to cancel the statute of limitations on prosecuting Nazi war criminals. But not everyone was happy with the film. Survivor Elie Wiesel denounced it as ''untrue, offensive, and cheap.'' And similarly heated debates over more recent Holocaust movies like ''Schindler's List,'' ''Life is Beautiful,'' and ''The Pianist'' show that uncertainties about how to depict the facts of mass slaughter in a fictional medium are not going away.
It has taken only a decade for the 1994 Rwanda genocide to reach the big screen. ''Hotel Rwanda,'' which told a Schindler-like story of a Hutu hotel manager who used his wits to save thousands of lives, opened to largely positive reviews in December and garnered three Oscar nominations. Next Saturday, ''Sometimes in April,'' a tale of a Hutu man who struggles with the loss of his family and the genocidal actions of his brother, will premiere on HBO. (It will be broadcast on PBS next month). A third major motion picture, ''A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali,'' based on the novel by Gil Courtemanche, is in production.
Like movies about the Holocaust, films about Rwanda are more than just films. They are social documents, moral and political artifacts. Because of this, we hold these films to both a higher and a lower standard. Those with an interest in the subject are grateful for the attention, but, at the same time, they are less forgiving about any perceived historical inaccuracies. It is no surprise, then, that both ''Hotel Rwanda'' and ''Sometimes in April'' rely heavily on recreations of survivors' testimony and documentary footage. After all, these are the representations that will forge the meaning of a historical event for millions around the world.
In Rwanda, that meaning remains contested. The genocide is not part of the history curriculum in Rwanda's schools. In its reconciliation efforts, the Tutsi-led government has gone a step further and outlawed discussion of ethnicity. ''We are all Rwandans,'' as the saying goes. If Rwandans talk too much about ethnicity, it can land them in jail-or in exile. Even for a foreigner, talking about ethnicity is delicate terrain.
But when you travel in Rwanda, it is practically impossible to meet someone-Hutu or Tutsi-who didn't lose several close friends or family members during the genocide. And they all have different stories to tell. Rwandans experienced the genocide not as a group but as individuals: as the child of a génocidaire father and a Tutsi mother in Kigali, for example; as a Hutu in the seat of Hutu extremism in the northwestern part of the country; or as a Tutsi from southern Butare where Hutu initially resisted the call to kill. Identity in Rwanda is complex-shaped by ethnicity, class, and region, and the choice of whose story you tell to represent the overarching story of the genocide is inescapably political.
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Director Raoul Peck, a Haitian who grew up in Congo and in Paris, has said that ''Sometime in April'' is ''based on a million true stories.'' But a dramatic film by necessity must focus on one story. In order to avoid the facile suggestion that the genocide maps perfectly to Hutu versus Tutsi, both ''Sometimes in April'' and ''Hotel Rwanda'' feature the story of a moderate Hutu man with a Tutsi wife living in Kigali. (While Tutsi were the prime target, tens or even hundreds of thousands of moderate Hutu were killed by Hutu extremists during the genocide.)
Both films skewer the United States, the United Nations, and France for failing to intervene. Neither film, however, offers a definitive take on the most volatile questions about the genocide-for example, the extent (and justice) of the abuses committed by Tutsi-rebel forces, the RPF, against Hutu that many allege took place after the genocide. ''Hotel Rwanda'' avoids the question by sticking to the 100 days of mass killing, which has the effect of suggesting the genocide was a discrete event with a beginning and an end rather than part of an ongoing conflict.
''Sometimes in April,'' which cuts between the events of 1994 and the present, gives a useful outline at the beginning of the film of the history of violence in Rwanda from colonial times to the days leading up to the genocide, and even gestures at the controversy over the Tutsi rebels in a brief scene where the main character witnesses an RPF soldier taking revenge on a man he thinks killed his family. But if you couldn't recognize an RPF uniform, it would be hard to know what was happening. And Peck's depiction of the semi-traditional ''gacaca'' courts currently being used to try lower-level perpetrators (the term means ''justice on the grass'') glosses over the difficulties of protecting witnesses and preventing wrongful accusations.
Many Rwandans have seen the films, and the reception has generally been positive. ''Hotel Rwanda'' has been circulating via pirated DVDs. (The film will make its official debut later this month at the first Kigali film festival, organized by Rwandan director Eric Kabera, whose own two films about the genocide have played throughout the country.) And in January a screening of ''Sometimes in April'' at the national stadium in Kigali, itself the site of massacres in 1994, drew an overflow audience of thousands.
Many may have come looking quite literally for a glimpse of themselves; Peck shot the film in Rwanda, using hundreds of ordinary citizens-including many survivors-as extras. (When I was in Kigali during the filming last spring, we would get occasional notices warning us not to be traumatized by volleys of gunfire or groups of actors with machetes).
A few members of the audience at the stadium were relatives of Carole Karemera, the Rwandan actress who plays the Tutsi wife who fights for her life. Much of Karemera's family remains in Kigali, and the ones who were brave enough to see the film were ''touched''-but ''it was tough,'' she told me.
For Rwandans, the story of the genocide is far from over. One morning last spring, I awoke to find that the Rwandan Tutsi housekeeper had arrived earlier than usual. She wanted to know if she could have a few days off. That morning she had found the bodies of several family members at the bottom of the well in her yard. They had been there for almost 10 years.
Some of Rwanda's wounds are obvious-the long lips of a machete scar down the back of a head, an indentation from a bullet that didn't finish its job. Others fester deep beneath the surface. Last year, I did a series of interviews with the wives of imprisoned génocidaires. The women had spent the past decade trying to raise what was left of their family, while in their villages many were ostracized, impoverished, and vulnerable-several had been raped. In Rwanda, the Tutsi-led government (which outlawed most opposition parties during the 2003 elections) controls the genocide's narrative so tightly that many Rwandans-particularly Hutu like these women-feel left out of the story.
''[President Paul] Kagame doesn't care about us,'' one woman told me. ''The government never talks to us and doesn't care about our problems.'' Three days a week she would walk five miles on bare, cracked feet to her husband's prison and back to deliver food. (At many prisons the government only provides food four day a week.) Like man of the wives I spoke to, she thought her husband had been wrongly accused, though she seemed more hopeful than certain.
''Hotel Rwanda'' and ''Sometimes in April'' do not include these voices. But thanks to those films, and the others likely to follow, millions of people around the world will be reminded of what happened in Rwanda. Even though the violence has been largely sanitized, both films do a masterful job making the horror of the genocide palpable. It is easy to imagine yourself as a Hutu or Tutsi trying to save yourself and your family from the slash of a machete. But the films also help us recognize ourselves as we already are-the westerners who did nothing in the face of one of the worst slaughters in history.
Michael J. Kavanagh is a Brooklyn-based journalist. He spent the first half of 2004 covering Rwanda on a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism.