Are we that different, you and I? Why do we hate each other? These are the central questions of Alrick Brown’s Kinyarwanda, a film about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In it we see Hutus and Tutsis but we don’t see much reason for hate between the two; in fact we don’t see many differences at all. They share a language, in fact, and it is the film’s namesake.
Kinyarwanda patches together a dozen characters and six storylines over the years of the genocide and the attempt at reconciliation that followed. In this way it can humanize a staggering number of hate-fueled murders that far too often can be seen only at a distance. Eight-hundred thousand people died, murdered by their own countrymen. A terrible figure, no doubt, butKinyarwanda is able to heighten its power by showing us that Jean’s parents died and many of Father Pierre’s congregation died, and that Emmanuel had something to do with it. It is ridiculous to think that a movie can encompass real suffering and Kinyarwanda doesn’t try; it simply wants to tell some of the stories that get folded into dispassionate news reports.
The movie is about anger and frustration but also about hope and forgiveness. If it had a thesis statement, it would be that whatever arbitrary dividers we invent to separate ourselves will be trumped by an inherent human need to connect with one another. An aphorism like that suggests a simplistic and perhaps naive experience, but while the message is plain, Brown, who co-wrote the script, doesn’t pull any punches and the film is far from childlike.
The film begins in a camp for former Hutu radicals who perpetrated the genocide against the Tutsis. It’s been many years from then and the camp is a prison for war criminals. Jean (Hadidja Zaninka) is a counselor who oversees a session of group therapy in which the prisoners talk about their actions during the genocide. The prisoners are contrite and ashamed; they seem to be incredulous that they could have done these things, except for Emmanuel (Edouard Bamporiki) who doesn’t say anything and seems menacingly bored while the group sings songs to the unified Rwanda. Then the story interweaves flashbacks to the time of the genocide showing Jean being courted by a Hutu boy, we see Emmanuel in a Hutu gang, we meet Lieutenant Rose (Cassandra Freeman), a Ugandan soldier aiming to bring peace to the region, there’s a thoughtful Mufti (Mutsari Jean) who calculates the Muslim response with his peers, and then Father Pierre (Mazimpaka Kennedy), a priest who is put in a refugee camp. We find out that Jean’s parents were murdered.
Beneath the film’s weighty manifesto lies a subtext about life going on in the face of horrendous terror. If most Westerners are anything like I am, the 1994 genocide was seen through the involvement of the United Nations. The film makes it clear that the Rwandans were very much on their own and the only place we see the UN is on the side of a few water barrels carried by children through desolate streets.
Children are at the center of the film’s most fraught and poignant moment when a boy named Ishmael (Hassan Kabera) is sent out on an errand by his father. His father is harboring Tutsis in the house. Ishmael runs into Emmanuel’s Hutu gang and overhears them talking about finding guns and “cockroaches,” the derogatory word for Tutsis. “I can take you to both,” Ishmael tells them and he leads them to his father’s house. In a movie with a title that underlines the common language between two warring groups, it uses a homonym to further illustrate the importance of communication. When asked where the guns are in front of his terrified family, Ishmael calmly produces a VHS tape of shooting footage, then, a number of bugs escape from under the TV. “And there are the cockroaches,” Ishmael says.
The movie ends with the landmark decision by the nation’s Muslims to open their mosques as sanctuaries to both Tutsis and peaceful Hutus. We see the troubled Mufti come to this decision with his colleagues. The participants in the meeting ruminate on their thoughts about the conflict, and we learn that the two tribes were peaceful for generations before the Belgians colonized the area and sponsored the rule of the Tutsis for arbitrary physical reasons. Instead of passing the blame the movie makes clear that it’s defining all racial hatred as arbitrary. The final moments of the Mufti and Father Pierre walking together generate an elemental power. It’s insulting to think of this as a narrative device because it really did happen, but in a movie about divisive elements in human life, religion, which has too often played the divider, is cast here with its original purpose as a unifier.
Brown, with his first feature, avoids many pitfalls of unexperienced directors, and every choice is more or less right, though sometimes he goes too far in the opposite direction. In the film’s desire to avoid sensationalism or melodrama it often becomes dry. It also wisely avoids wanting to be a comprehensive story of the tragedy, but in that it loses some of the scale of the suffering. We have to bring what we know of the events to Kinyarwanda for it to have any global emotional impact. I asked two questions to begin this review that I feel the film asks. Are we that different, you and I? Kinyarwanda responds strongly in the negative. That it avoids trying to answer “Why do we hate each other?” is mostly wise. It asks that question out of sorrow, not curiosity.