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
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
A short, fictional Rwandan film, A Love Letter to My
Country (2006), shows that the move towards re-conciliation is
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).