Rwanda Revisits Its Nightmare

Topic(s): Rwanda | Comments Off on Rwanda Revisits Its Nightmare

February 17, 2004
KIGALI, Rwanda — Soldiers poured through the front gate of a schoolyard, followed by angry militia men wielding machetes, axes, knives and clubs. There were shrieks and gunshots. Girls fled in terror. Then a voice yelled, “Cut!”
The soldiers stopped; the fear faded from the faces of the girls. They all went back to their positions and started again.
Among those watching was Simon Gasibirege, a psychologist at Rwanda’s national university. He had counseled the actors before the cameras started rolling, and he studied their faces throughout the mock raid for signs of undue anxiety. He, too, could have called a halt to the action.
It was 10 years ago that members of Rwanda’s ethnic Hutu majority went on a rampage, killing their countrymen in a 100-day fury that left bodies strewn along roadsides, floating down rivers and piled up in churches, stadiums and schools. An estimated 800,000 people, Tutsis and moderate Hutus, died in the frenzy of ethnic animosity, fueled by an extremist government known for the motto “Hutu Power.”
To commemorate what happened, Rwanda’s leaders are planning a string of memorial services across the country on the 10th anniversary of the day the killing began, April 7, 1994. There will be testimonials from survivors, the unveiling of new memorials and speeches.
Raoul Peck, the Haitian-born film director who made “Lumumba” in 2000, is at work on his own remembrance, “Sometimes in April,” an HBO movie that will recreate the horror as well as the heroism of 1994. It winds up filming at the end of February and is planned for television in the United States next year.
The film follows one family, using actual events as a guide, and switches from now to 10 years ago. Mr. Peck’s movies have a documentarylike edge and mix politics with engaging story lines.
Already, though, the project is bringing the events of that April back to life for many Rwandans. Survivors fill most of the acting roles in the film and make up much of the crew. Recreating the horror has been a traumatic exercise for many of them, but a therapeutic one as well. The lead actress, Carole Karemera, 29, was born in Brussels to Rwandan parents and followed the killing of her people from afar. In one scene the Hutu militias, known as the Interahamwe, sang songs of hatred as they prepared to kill. It seemed so real to her, too real.
“I felt cold inside,” Miss Karemera said. “I was shaking. I kept having to say to myself: `This is cinema. This is cinema. This is cinema.’ But I finally just had to leave the set that day.”
Another scene required the intervention of Mr. Gasibirege, the psychologist. The special-effects crew had scattered fake cadavers in a swamp outside Kigali that had been a killing ground and hiding place for thousands of Tutsis.
In the re-creation, some of the very Tutsi survivors who had crouched in the muck to save their lives returned to their old hiding spots. They were eager for the jobs, and for the world to know what they went through. They refused the boots that the movie crew offered. They had been barefoot 10 years ago. “They made the film just like it was back then,” said Joseline Uwangabe, 25, who survived a month in the swamp in 1994 with her mother and two brothers. Six other siblings were killed.
The swamp scene was too much for one onlooker, a young woman from a nearby village who thought the corpses were real. She began shouting hysterically and sobbing. Then she couldn’t move. “It took two hours for her to come out of it,” Mr. Gasibirege said.
There are onlookers at every scene. Some hope to be given employment, which is in short supply here. But others are drawn by curiosity. Why is that man wearing the despised uniform of the now-disbanded Forces Armées Rwandaises? What are those loud bangs? Why are those girls screaming?
“It hurts so much to remember,” said Jean de Dieu Butera, 32, who was in a crowd of gawkers. He had lost his parents and seven of his brothers and sisters in 1994. What happened to him, he said, would make a horrifying movie. Although remembering was painful, Mr. Butera said he was pleased that the movie would spread the word of the fate of his relatives and so many others. “Foreigners need to know what happened here,” he said. “It could happen in other places, too.”
Anathalie Njirandagijamana, a mother of four whose husband was killed back then, said she had no intention of seeing “Sometimes in April” or any other film on 1994. She said she could barely turn on her television, with all the talk of the looming anniversary.
“Those people around the world who didn’t experience it should see what happened,” she said. “But for those of us who were around, we don’t want to go through it again.”
Ms. Njirandagijamana lives down the street from where the crew filmed one of the movie’s most violent scenes, the killing of a roomful of schoolgirls. They were heroes, these girls, apparently having refused to divide themselves by ethnicity when militia men ordered them to do so. So all of them, Tutsis and Hutus alike, were killed.
Since 1994 Rwanda’s Tutsi-led government has sought to wipe out the ethnic labels that divided the country. In the past Rwandans were required to carry identification cards that classified them as either majority Hutu or minority Tutsi. Now even talking of the labels could land one in jail as a “divisionist.”
But Mr. Peck’s movie had to raise the ethnic labels that were such a part of the events of 1994. His staff recruited schoolgirls at Kigali’s most exclusive private school, but most appeared to be Tutsis. Hutu girls were signed up on the streets.
In most roles the film cast Hutus as Hutus and Tutsis as Tutsis, even though Rwandans sometimes misunderstood. A group of Hutus reacted angrily, for instance, when the crew announced that it wanted only Tutsi extras that day.
But Mr. Peck said his film is not about ethnicity. “We purposely didn’t say if certain characters were Hutus or Tutsis,” he said. “That’s not the point. I want it to be a human tragedy. It’s not about race. It’s not about ethnicity. It’s about personal decisions.” He sought to capture the horror of the violence without overdoing it. “I don’t want people to go like this” — he covered his eyes with his hand — “and not watch the film,” he said. “Sometimes a brief image is enough.”
It has been Bob Meyer’s job as the film’s acting coach to bring out the raw emotion of what took place a decade ago from the nearly 100 nonactors with speaking roles. So Mr. Meyer, a veteran actor who appeared in one of Mr. Peck’s earlier films, lingers on the set waiting for Mr. Peck to glare in his direction, a signal that a particular actor needs work.
Mr. Meyer said he learned early in the filming that bringing up what really happened to the actors in 1994 was the wrong approach. “We don’t even go there,” he said. “We don’t want them to shut down, and that is what they do when you talk about 1994.”
So he uses more mundane frustrations to stir the novice actors’ emotions. He will tell a woman to imagine her favorite plate breaking. Or tell a dog lover to act as though his favorite animal had been stolen. Sometimes he will shove the actors or insult them. With enough prodding, they will respond with their own anger and he will say, “That’s it!”
Frequently no acting lessons are necessary. At the swamp, for instance, the survivors knew best how the scene should unfold.
“A lot of times my directions are minimal,” Mr. Peck said. “You just hold your camera.”
Filming in Rwanda was not easy. With no local production capabilities, the crew carried everything needed to make the movie. Five trucks full of equipment were loaded aboard a ship bound from Marseille to Mombasa in Kenya. The vehicles were then driven to Kigali. Nearly a dozen insurance companies rejected the project as too risky before one offered a policy.
Despite the obstacles Mr. Peck said there was no place else the movie could have been shot. “There will be very few movies in which the Rwandan people can say: `This is ours. We are on this screen,’ ” he said. “Shooting it elsewhere wasn’t an option.”