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Tales from the ‘killing churches’

04 April 2014

Films bear witness to Rwanda's terrible past, says Jolyon Mitchell;  but for good or ill?

Victims: skulls in Ntarama Church beside a torn poster of Pope John Paul II

Victims: skulls in Ntarama Church beside a torn poster of Pope John Paul II

TWENTY years ago, on 6 April 1994, a small Falcon jet was shot down as it approached Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. It was carrying the then Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. Within a few hours, 100 days of killing began, which ended with some 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu dead.

Schools and churches had previously been places of sanctuary. Not this time. Women, children, and men were struck down with machetes, clubs, and grenades,some as they huddled together in churches such as the one at Ntarama (right). These have become haunting memorials; and stories from the "killing churches" have become increasingly well known through films.

In Alisa, a recent short online film at the Rwandan Stories site, one of the few survivors from Ntarama declares: "We all thought that if we came into the house of God no one would touch us." About 5000 people were killed there. At the peak of the genocide, there were more than five deaths every minute in Rwanda: the rate of killing was three times as rapid as the murder of the Jews in the Second World War.

There are only one or two films of an actual killing; but when the scale of what had happened became clear, film-makers descended on Rwanda, revealing to the world how neighbours had turned into killers. The films show that many in the UN, the West, and the local political, journalistic, and religious communities failed Rwanda, with catastrophic results.

Memories of the violence in Rwanda became a magnet not only to film journalists, but also to feature-film makers, who produced films such as Hotel Rwanda (2004), Sometimes in April (2005), and Shooting Dogs (2005). Some argue that these romanticise, over-simplify, and create Hollywood heroes out of what was 100 days of carnage. Films may trespass on private agonies, and yet they can bear witness to almost unimaginable heartbreak.

IN THE immediate aftermath of the 1994 genocide, documentary film-makers found themselves in dangerous and confusing situations, where they could do little morethan observe and survive. Early documentaries told the stories of survivors, victims, and killers. Some investigated the part played by "hate media" in Rwanda during the early 1990s; others considered the failures of the West, and religious leaders. More recent films investigate the part that local village courts (gacaca) played in the ensuing justice- and reconciliation- process.

In many films, an outsider - a white Roman Catholic priest, a British teacher, a Canadian general - is the most significant witness, who interviews survivors, and comments on their stories. As a Rwandan film-maker says: "It's through other people's eyes that the Rwandan genocide has been discovered."

More recently, however, filmsare being made in Rwanda, by Rwandans, with local audiences in mind. Some of the international productions employed, and even trained, local film-makers. Kigali's film centre, and the touring "Hillywood" film festival, have contributed to the development of a film industry.

One of its leading forces is Eric Kabera, the founder and current president of the Rwanda Cinema Centre. His film Keepers of Memory: Survivors' accounts of the Rwandan genocide (2004) takes viewers around a number of memorial sites, including several of the "killing churches". For Kabera, who lost many of his family in the genocide, making this film was, he says, "like a self-discovery process - digging into my own soul through the souls of the survivors".

Daddy Ruhorahoza's Confession (2008) is a locally produced low-budget short film, made for only $350, which borrows the language of documentaries to tell its semi-autobiographical story. Ruhorahoza's family was unexpectedly protected by a man who raped and killed more than 30 women in his neighbourhood, and who yet protected them, apparently because Ruhorahoza's mother suppliedhim with a meal every Friday.

He wanted to make a short film that showed there was "humanity left in every criminal". In adarkened interior that is reminiscent of a confessional, the perpetrator stares intently at the camera, confessing his "sinning" and how a woman whom he raped was never seen again. The perpetrator says that he now prays for her and for her family every year on 6 April. Looking away from the camera at the end, he declares, "I ask for God's mercy. I want peace in my soul.'"

A short, fictional Rwandan film, A Love Letter to My Country (2006), shows that the move towards re-conciliation is never simple.

RWANDA is not the only nation wrestling with the problem of how to remember and deal with agonising trauma. A documentary about the Moroccan truth commission, Our Forbidden Places (Nos Lieux Interdits, 2008), includes an elderly woman who compares her nation's past to a bees' nest that is best left undisturbed. Presenting the painful truth will not necessarily bring peace, she says, and may even make the situation worse.

None the less, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu suggests, "Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are," or about "'turning a blind eye to the wrong". True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth.

However flawed, these films have a part to play in exposing aspects of Rwanda's truth, even at the risk of disturbing the bees' nest. Facing violent histories honestly may be dangerous, but it can contribute to future peace.

The Revd Professor Jolyon Mitchell is Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI) at the University of Edinburgh. His latest book is Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence: The role of religion and media (Routledge).

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