Jonny Weinberg reviews this poignant documentary about the Rwandan Genocide
Revisiting Genocide is painful. This is especially true if, as is the case with Rwanda, the murders reside in the living memory of the communities and individuals that remain. The BBC found this out to their cost last October, following the broadcast of their documentary This World: Rwanda’s Untold Story. The film attempted to challenge the conventional narrative of the genocide as the massacre of 800,000 Tutsi civilians by their Hutu neighbours and soldiers. It suggested instead that the distribution of bloodshed was more evenly balanced across the two ethnic groups. Scientific and analytical in its approach, Rwanda’s Untold Story caused a minor scandal. Its controversial claims led to intense and impassioned criticism in both the UK and Rwanda itself.
Shades of True (A Mots Couvert) makes no such attempt at objectivity. Rather than debating the facts of history, directors Violaine Baraduc and Alexandre Westphal explore the massacres in a uniquely personal way. The documentary centres on the testimony of eight Hutu women who took part in the genocide, recounting their stories from within prison walls. It is a bold premise that succeeds in providing a powerful new perspective on a much-discussed matter.
Sitting in purgatorial grey rooms in their bright orange suits, the convicts seem half haunted by their crimes and half unwilling to truly confront them.
Those looking for a factual overview of the events of 1994 will be disappointed. We are given fragments of individuals’ experiences instead of a coherent narrative. However, this enables Westphal and Baraduc to provide something far more interesting. As the women sit in the group discussions arranged by the filmmakers, we watch them grasp for an explanation, a human understanding of what happened and of what they themselves did. Turning over the various accounts and experiences, the same fundamental questions emerge again and again: how could such horrors take place? Why did people turn on and murder their neighbours? How could they give up family members? Why did women play such an active role in the killing when they had stood aside in previous conflicts?
The women do not argue about the course historical events. Instead, they dispute why ordinary people were able to do extraordinarily terrible things, and why they had done what their mothers and grandmothers had refrained from doing. Naturally, there is no satisfactory conclusion. They find no simple or comforting answers. Sitting in purgatorial grey rooms in their bright orange suits, the convicts seem half haunted by their crimes and half unwilling to truly confront them.
The film’s success lies in the way it ties together the big scale and the small scale, projecting the wider events of the genocide on the experience of the women and echoing the pain and tension still felt throughout Rwanda in the subjects. The directors’ humanising of the women without excusing them produces a genuinely insightful documentary. This is exemplified by the relationship between one of the women, Immaculée, and her son Jérôme. Half Tutsi and abused by his mother during the genocide, Jérôme contends with the infamy of his mother’s legacy in their community as well as his own pain. He personifies the painful processes of forgiveness and reconciliation that Rwanda is undergoing. Through him and through the women’s interviews, we gain a delicately personal and emotional understanding of this most inhuman of events.
Featured image credit: still from Shades of True