Controversy was stoked ahead of last night’s premiere of a doc examining the rehabilitation of a war-torn central African country mired by its recent past, while also implicating a Western power in participating in genocide.
“This is the story of Rwanda. It’s our story, but we also have to move forward,” said Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame following the world premiere of Deborah Scranton’s doc, “Earth Made of Glass,” at the Tribeca Film Festival Monday night in a very soggy downtown Manhattan. “I believe in bringing the country back together through a combination of both reconciliation and justice along with economic development.”
Scranton, whose doc “The War Tapes” won Best Documentary at the 2006 Tribeca fest, examines the Rwandan leader’s approach in healing the country’s artificial divide born out of its colonial past when the country’s former ruler, Belgium, divided its people between I.D. card-carrying Tutsis and Hutus. Even after independence, the divide remained and amidst political crisis and hatred, resulted in the murder of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Hutu militants in 1994.
The film looks at the overall process of healing, while focusing on the heart-wrenching story of one man who scours the countryside where his father was brutally murdered in the mid ’90s. In the process, Jean-Pierre Sagahutu, comes face to face with his father’s murderers – Sagahutu’s father worked as a doctor in the community for decades – and must confront the dueling desire to avenge his father and his personal wish to break the cycle of violence in his country so that his young son may live a future without war.
The idea behind the film came when Scranton met the President of Rwanda during a dinner party hosted by a mutual friend. She told indieWIRE this morning that the two were seated next to each other and began talking. “After ‘War Tapes,’ I was left with the question about what happens after war ends and the President and I started talking about this.”
Scranton said that she became intrigued when Kagame explained his idea for reconciliation in his country, forging a middle path between the legal and the personal in order to come to terms with pain and bitterness. She decided to head to Rwanda to explore the concept herself and met Mr. Sagahutu who had survived the genocide after hiding for three months in a septic tank.
“I think the world has a lot to learn from what Rwanda has done and I think the model can apply to not just war, but wherever conflict occurs.” In the course of the story, Sagahutu, grieving openly, asks his father’s likely murderer – or certainly someone complicit in his brutal death – to help him locate his father’s remains so he can have a proper burial. While the man asks his forgiveness, Sagahutu remains silent, but says he won’t bring charges against him. “I just want peace and to be able to raise my family,” he said.
While the film focuses on Rwanda’s rehabilitation, it also gives an indictment of France and its late President Francois Mitterand in not only tacitly allowing the genocide to occur, but in actively taking part. Based on a report released in August, 2008 by the Kagame government, the film gives Rwanda’s account detailing how France conspired to maintain its influence over the country which straddles Belgium’s Franco-influenced former colonies and those of the English-speaking former British Empire. “The President of Rwanda at the time, Habyarimana, was French-leaning and was close with the Mitterand government,” said Scranton. The film alleges that France helped the Hutus arm themselves as the genocide began to rage following the death of Habyarimana (along with the Hutu president of neighboring Burundi) in a plane crash which was blamed on the Tutsis, plunging the country into crisis. “France wanted to keep [Rwanda] as a de facto colony,” said Scranton.
Though the film is clearly sympathetic to Kagame’s message and cites his government’s work in establishing peace, re-building the economy (it has tripled in size this decade), and offering education to its youth, reports have come out that Kagame’s government itself has stifled opposition and human rights in the lead up to the country’s elections set for this August.
A recent article by Time Magazine by Nick Wadhams alleges that Kagame’s government has cracked down on opponents. Rwandan newspaper editor, Charles Kabonero, is now exiled in Uganda and opposition politician Victoire Ingabire is apparently unable to leave the capital, Kigali, until a trial against her ends. Furthermore, according to Time, New York-based Human Rights Watch announced that its researcher there, Carina Tertsakian, has been denied a work permit to continue doing research in Rwanda when her original three month visa expires soon. The pattern, according to Human Rights Watch, is to target individuals rather than whole organizations since that will draw less attention and avoid obvious international condemnation.
When asked about the article, Scranton said she had heard of some accusations, but hadn’t seen the article. She added that her experience in Rwanda while filming had been free of any official disruption and that Kagame himself had not seen her film until it premiered Monday evening in New York.
“I can only talk about me as a filmmaker there. I had complete freedom and was able to meet and talk to whoever I wanted wherever and whenever I wanted. I never encountered any of that.” Scranton added that with only a decade-and-a-half after the genocide, there is still raw emotion and it will take time for its society to heal, likening Rwanda’s situation with post-war Germany. She also noted that former U.S. President Bill Clinton praised Kagame’s work and said his approach to reconciliation is a model that could be emulated in other conflict-ravaged areas of the world such as Israel/Palestine as well as Kosovo.
“If you look at Germany right after World War II, nobody was allowed to propagate Nazism, so there are parallels that I think are important to keep in mind. I’m aware there are criticisms of the President, but my stories are taken from the ground [in this film] and I can speak from my own experience.”