Dir/prod: Anne Aghion. UK/US. 2009. 81 mins.
The Rwandan genocide of 1994 has spawned a number of feature films, but Anne Aghion’s remarkable documentary about the ‘Gacaca’ community tribunals is the most calmly moving guide yet to the emotional landscape of those who were left behind.
Unlike its fictional counterparts, My Neighbor… does not lean on Western characters to translate and mediate the raw horror. Apart from one or two court officials, everyone we see on screen lives in the same small rural village, Gafumba, and all played some part in the bloody events of that April – either as relatives of the victims, or as their killers.
Filmed on Digibeta in boxy 3:4 format, the film is a condensed, more cinema-oriented version of a long-running project which has already generated three award-winning TV documentaries, broadcast on HBO and other channels. Its testing subject and heavy reliance on subtitles may confine My Neighbor to niche theatrical audiences, but its educational potential should not be underestimated. The TV films have been screened in NGOs and community centres around the world, and have even become part of the process they document – with viewings for self-confessed Hutu killers before their release from prison.
Gacacas are hearings conducted by lay judges set up in open-air ‘courtrooms’ by the Rwandan government in an attempt to facilitate the return to their homes of Hutus suspected of participating in the 1994 genocide, and encourage rapprochement between the two ethnic communities by meting out justice on the spot. The director focuses in on this difficult process in one single farming community. There are no images of the massacre itself, just an opening caption which tells us that in less than a hundred days, three-quarters of Rwanda’s ethnic Tutsis were slaughtered by their Hutu friends, neighbours – sometimes even family members.
Women survivors – generally Hutu wives of Tutsi husbands – describe, haltingly, what it was like to have their menfolk and children butchered, to see a baby snatched from their back and hacked to death.
Suspected killers talk in their turn about their innocence, or involvement, but in a more guarded way: they seem suspicious of the filmmakers, and of the whole reconciliation act that they are being forced to perform. Gradually some characters emerge: widows Felicite and Euphrasie, and Abraham Rwamfizi – a Hutu who, unlike some of his Gacaca co-defendants, seems to be genuinely troubled by his part in the massacre, even while he protests that he shed no blood.
What comes across most strongly is the intelligence and humanity of interviewees such as Felicite as they tussle with their conflicting emotions, and with questions of truth, justice and forgiveness. The discreet, respectful camera gives them time to express themselves but is also open to its role as voyeuristic intruder: as Euphrasie comments to a neighbour: “What strange questions these white people ask.”
Calmly paced and sensitively shot, with a certain lyricism in its long shots of country life and its spare soundtrack of Rwandan vocal music, Aghion’s powerful film sets the beauty of a country against the unimaginable barbarity what took place here.
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Claire Bailly Du Bois
Nadia Ben Rachid