By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 2, 2011 at 10:42AM
The Rwandan genocide is more than a backdrop for the ensemble drama "Kinyarwanda." It puts a face on the victims and their oppressors with an earnest desire to work though the country's demons -- if not attempting to expel them, then at least coming to terms with the human component on both sides of the conflict. That's a feat that even the voluminous genre of Holocaust stories has yet to achieve, and it distinguishes the movie despite its flaws.
First-time director Alrick Brown explores the interlocking, time-spanning experiences of warring Hutu and Tutsi with a solemn mood more consistent than any narrative thread. The effect is like group therapy, a purging of national strife, rather than an attempt at narrative cohesion.
Using a broad canvas to deconstruct vast historical events has been tried in films ranging from "Intolerance" to "Crash," with varying results. The frequent problem with the anthology approach is that it diffuses the emotional connection with a constant shifting of places and times. In the case of "Kinyarwanda," some fragments work better than others, but the links are more valuable than any individual thread.
Propaganda spewed on Hutu Power Radio connects various scenes, as do actors that come and go. A brief story of marital infidelity (simplistically introduced as "He's Tutsi, She's Hutu" in a title card) takes on renewed value when the feuding couple is revealed as the parents of the teenager who discovers them murdered in the first sequence. But many other stories lack focus and make the basic themes of acceptance and reconciliation define the events rather than emerging from them.
The movie does contain regular characters tied to three interlocking plots: A tale of conflicted soldiers in the Rwandan Patriotic Front; villagers, including the aforementioned teen and a beleaguered priest, dodging Tutsi attacks; and a series of reconciliations between victims and oppressors at a "Re-EduKation Camp" in 2004. As Brown moves between these periods, the contrast grows tiresome and the sentimentalism redundant.
At the same time, the filmmaker's dedication infuses the movie with purpose that occasionally manages to excuse the bleeding-heart approach. Despite its reliance on a cast of unknowns, "Kinyarwanda" contains generally credible and at times even naturalistic performances that sometimes create a documentary value to the proceedings.
But those bits come and go. The title refers to the national language, the single component that connects each individual regardless of their ethnic allegiances. That's a heartfelt point made too bluntly several times, including the definition of the word in the opening credits. It might have served a better purpose at the end -- but then "Kinyarwanda," with its cumbersome score and preachy monologues, emphasizes a desire to tell instead of show. "It is more about the legacy for those who come after us," a soldier fighting the Tutsi rebellion says, as if participating in a panel discussion on the movie's themes.
Whenever it falls prey to overstatement, "Kinyarwanda" loses some of its pull, but Brown intermittently regains it. A haunting late scene finds the war-scarred teen confronting the Tutsi who murdered her family. The exchange only works because the film has kept her around long enough to make her predicament seem real. "Kinyarwanda" balances many of its obvious ingredients with more involving scenes that put words into action. While the flimsier moments prevent it from being a major achievement, it still maintains a few minor ones.
criticWIRE grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having won the Audience Prize at Sundance and other festival awards around the world should help put "Kinyarwanda" on the radar of those interested in its topics when AFFRM (the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement) opens the movie today in eight cities around the U.S. While not set to do great business, it should tap into the niche community it aims to address.