Monday, November 25, 2013


Directed by Alrick Brown.
2011. Not Rated, 100 minutes.
Cassandra Freeman
Hadidja Zaninka
Mazimpaka Kennedy
Edouard Bamporiki
Cleophas Kabasita
Hassan Kabera
Abdalla Uwimana
Marc Gwamaka
Mutsari Jean
Kena Onyenjekwe

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 has been, and continues to be, widely documented. It has even made its way to mainstream American cinema with 2004’s Hotel Rwanda which starred Don Cheadle. In case none of this rings a bell, I’ll give you a quick and oversimplified history lesson. People of the two predominant ethnicities in Rwanda, the Hutu and the Tutsi’s were engaged in a civil war. Even though the Hutu comprise a much larger portion of the country’s population, the Tutsi controlled the government for much of its history. However, in 1994, the Hutu had been in power for roughly thirty years. Rebel Tutsi’s organized in an effort to seize power, thus resulting in war. After Hutu leader Juvénal Habyarimana was assassinated, members of a powerful Hutu group known as the Akazu initiated the mass killings of Tutsi’s. Through pointed and unfiltered propaganda, they convinced many that the Tutsi’s aim was to enslave the Hutu and for this, all of them should be exterminated. They openly referred to Tutsi’s as “cockroaches.” Also targeted were any Hutu who opposed these genocidal tactics, were thought to be hiding Tutsi, and of course, those who were married to someone of Tutsi descent. They were labeled traitors. Over a period of 100 days (from early April to mid-July of ’94) men, women, and children alike, often whole families at once, were murdered in the streets, in their homes, schools, churches, and wherever else they might be by Hutu death squads. Many of these squads were part of the Hutu military, but a disturbing number of them were made up of civilians taking up arms against their neighbors. Often, these executions were carried out by machete leaving maimed those who didn’t die from their attack. When it was over, somewhere in the vicinity of one million people had perished. That is an estimated twenty percent of the country’s entire population at the time. Most of them were Tutsi’s. Imagine if one of every five people you know were violently murdered over the summer. Eventually, the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), a mostly Tutsi rebel group defeated the Hutu army and seized control of the country. This is the backdrop for our movie.

The tale of Kinyarwanda is told mostly through three intertwining plot lines. The firs involves a young girl named Jean (Zaninka). She is half-Tutsi and returns home from a day hanging out at a friend’s house to find that the rest of her family has been slaughtered. The next has us follow Father Pierre (Kennedy), a Tutsi Catholic priest who is highly sought after by the Hutu since he is viewed to be in a position of leadership. Finally, we ride along with Lt. Rose (Freeman), a female officer in the RPF, as they try to extract people from dangerous situations. Each story is well told. The danger within them is undeniably real, helping invest us in the fate of these people. Also helping is the almost constant playing of the radio. During this time, Hutu run stations blatantly advocated the mass killing of Tusti through incendiary broadcasts. Hearing the call for murder is, in itself, a scary thing. Much more frightening is then seeing ordinary citizens answering that call. It’s the worst of mob mentality on an exponentially larger than normal scale. Therefore, we realize death is almost always quite literally right around the corner.

Through jumps back and forth in time, the movie also sets up a redemption tale. Parts of the movie take place some time after the genocide with many of the Hutu perpertrators we’ve met in some sort of de-programming or re-education camp. It is run by Lt. Rose. Here, we get some heart-wrenching group counseling sessions. We worry that the mental state of at least one person is not healing so well. We try to put ourselves in the shoes of the Tutsi survivors and figure out if we could forgive such atrocities. This is no easy task.

The are some small dings in the movie’s armor. Most noticeably, the acting is not quite top notch. In fact, many of the performers are first-timers. This renders the individual stories just a bit less powerful than they should be. None of the individual actors reach out and grab us by the throat, the way this material is begging someone to. Also, the Hutu characters need to be fleshed out a little more. We only get to know anything about one of them as the they were before they took up killing as a mission. It works wonderfully, but it is a tactic not applied elsewhere. This also may have strengthened Kinyarwanda even further. However, these are somewhat minor in the grand scheme of things. It overcomes its flaws to deliver a truly harrowing tale worthy of your attention.

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