“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” –Milan Kundera
The brief history of films about the 1994 Rwandan genocide seem to range wildly, from glossy Oscar bait like Hotel Rwanda to the intimate, poetic beauty of Lee Isaac Chung’s Munyurangabo to the damning documentary Shake Hands With The Devil. But a look under the hood shows the most difficult truth about these films, whether they feature a big name movie star, a foreigner directing local non-actors or reportage on the moral failings of the international community; most of the films about the Rwandan genocide feature a distinctly Western touch and, unable to capture the emotional experience of the genocide itself, refract the issue of the Rwandan experience through the lens of something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. Even the brilliant Munyurangabo, which focuses on reconciliation in the years after the genocide, is only able to capture the ghostly remnants of those actual, murderous days, and Hotel Rwanda puts the murder on the other side of an iron fence, creating something akin to a Schindler’s List for the Tutsi people.
Cinema has proven wholly inadequate as a substitute for memory in telling the story of the murderous rampage that took place in Rwanda.
The Day God Walked Away, directed by the Belgian cinematographer Philippe van Leeuw (making his debut), takes a massive step forward in using the language of cinema to convey the horror of the genocide. Instead of making the genocide a pretext for grand statements about personal responsibility or the cultural and tribal conflicts that drove the Hutu majority to murder their Tutsi neighbors en masse, van Leeuw forgoes psychology, culture and the massive scale of death, distilling the genocide into the experience of a single Tutsi woman named Jacqueline (Rwandan pop star Ruth Niere, making a powerful debut). In his writing on the film, van Leeuw describes his inspiration for the story;
“In April 1992, some friends of mine returned from Rwanda following the emergency evacuation… Before they left, they hid Jacqueline, their children’s Rwandan nanny, in the attic of their house in Kigali, hoping that she would escape the massacre. They never knew what became of her.”
Thus begins van Leeuw’s film, which the imagines the genocidal experience from Jacqueline’s perspective; Hiding Anne Frank-like in a dirty attic while the Hutu militas search the home of her employers, Jacqueline rides out the first few days of her nightmare before escaping the house and fleeing into the bush, on a mission back to her home to find what has become of her children. What she discovers, and what that discovery inspires, is a devastating portait of sublimation in the name of survival; Jacqueline spends the overwhelming majority of the film in a wordless stupor, hiding in the forest surrounding her village (which has been entirely taken over by her former neighbors) and avoiding the roving bands of murderous locals, machetes in hand, boasting of rape and murder. By keeping Jacqueline in close-up and placing the horror and danger beyond the edges of the frame (the sound shoots around the theater, giving the impression of being completely surrounded), the terror of her experience is almost unbearable; death is always close and every human noise, each an otherwise desirable connection to humanity, feels like an imminent threat.
The Day God Walked Away
The lush green landscape of the forest and the harsh, unromanticized sunlight (no magic hour here) provide both exposure and cover for Jacqueline who, as portrayed by Niere, is almost too emotionally “blank” to carry the weight of what she has seen and felt, let alone to speak for the entirety of a genocide. Even the mutually benficial friendship Jacqueline forges with an Injured Man (Afazali Dewaele), whom she nurses back to relative health, seems slight when set against the depth of her humiliation and suffering. After several close calls and a penultimate act of near-violence that re-shapes the entire story (and gives a final outlet to the indignities she has suffered), Jacqueline makes a heart-breaking, existential choice that highlights both the banality of the violence and depth of the casual disregard for humanity that underscores the entire genocide. It is a powerful, hopeless finale to a traumatic, insufferable situation.
While the film ostensibly has the same problem shared by so many of its predecessors– mainly that it was not made by an African (or Rwandan) filmmaker and therefore suffers a little from an “outsider seeking to honor the reality of the victims” complex without a primary emotional knowledge of the depth of cultural meaning embodied in the genocidal reality– van Leeuw goes much further than most other filmmakers at taking the devastation from the realm of the surreal question of “how could this happen” to the more relevant cinematic issue of the experience itself. As such, van Leeuw honors the best of cinema by giving voice to the feelings of the victim and bringing the power of emotioal memory to bear on every single moment; the trauma suffered by Jacqueline is only one experience among a million, but van Leeuw makes sure it is precise and, most importantly, deeply felt.