In high school, my father submitted me to the horror that is Philip Gourevitch’s 1998 We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, a book containing lush, rich prose attempting to describe what are honestly indescribable things (including a church full of dead bodies, viewed from above, and one brief image of a skeletal fetus in a pregnant woman’s remains which will forever haunt me, and which surely haunts Gourevitch). Most of the killing was done with machetes. Think about that. The Nazis had gas chambers—efficient, Kafka-esque death machines; the Hutus had machetes.
I have always had great difficulty conceiving the Rwandan Genocide. In my mind, the Holocaust, the European genocide of Native Americans, the Crusades, the Civil War, etc., all exist in the ether of History, in a category labeled something like “awful events we as a human society have learned from and will not repeat.” But the Rwandan Genocide, which lasted some 100 days and resulted in the deaths of upwards of 1,000,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus people, happened while I was alive. People were hacking at other people with machetes—the same tool I used to clear pepper trees and poison ivy out of my yard as a child. And that terrifies me, on an existential, gut-deep level.
It took almost 10 years for the broader general public to become truly aware of the events, with the 2004 release of Hotel Rwanda, which tells the story of hotelier Paul Rusesabagina’s effort to save some 1,200 Tutsi refugees. The film was nominated for every award under the sun and received great acclaim. People started paying attention.
And now this year, with Alrick Brown’s Kinyarwanda, we are given another perhaps more intimate depiction of the Rwandan experience, told in six separate story lines, including the chilling and humbling depiction of a Hutu rehabilitation camp.
The film is difficult, imposing and somehow makes the Genocide more immediate, more concrete. It is a story of survival and horror, of course. It is a story of anger and vengeance. But it is also one of empathy, forgiveness, understanding. To make a movie about the killing would be easy. To make a movie about what happened during, between and after the killing is something much more thorny, and consequently much more rewarding. If that’s the right word.
It struck me while watching Kinyarwanda that the children that lived through the genocide are now young men and women. They are building lives upon a foundation of horror. And horror often has a way of softening people, making them gentler, kinder. And hopefully, so will films like Brown’s.