Alrick Brown’s 2011 Sundance World Cinema Audience Award Winner “Kinyarwanda” is a complex portrait of love, loss and forgiveness during the Rwandan genocide. The film is named for one of the many languages spoken in the country. Brown envisioned a story that would capture the essence of the country and the people, not just the warfare. Says Brown, “What happened in Rwanda was a tragedy but they were a people and country as well, so I was really trying to bring out that other dimension that we hadn’t seen before.”
The film won AFI Fest’s World Cinema Audience Award on the festival circuit. Indiewire caught up with Brown at the AFI Fest, where he talked about the need to move away from common representations of Rwanda and Africa and why all filmmaking is inherently political.
AFFRM opens “Kinyarwanda” December 2.
With the Rwandan genocide being such a complex course of events, how did you distill that to three stories that interconnect?
The script was determined by the nature of the situation. I went to Rwanda to work with Ishmael Ntihabose, who is the film’s executive producer and a survivor of the genocide. He and I had been emailing back and forth for years. He had a story he wanted to tell and he got a grant to do the story based on the Muslim influence and their impact on the genocide, a story that very few people knew about.
When I arrived in Rwanda, I met people in a country where there’s a million people who were killed. The population was six million, [so] everybody was affected by it in some way; everybody had a story. The structure literally came out of meeting so many people. I heard one story and it was more magical and amazing than the last and I just kept those stories in mind. I said to Ishmael, “Maybe the best way to do this [is] tell a multitude of stories and give people a more comprehensive look at what happened.” And then I could intertwine them, much more than I could write an entire feature film about what one Muslim person did. I didn’t have the time to bite into that.
Your structure really went against the polarizing ways that genocide is often framed. Did you have that in mind as you were writing the script?
Yeah. I knew it was the right thing to do because war is that complex, particularly genocide. There’s so many perspectives, so many angles. And even though there’s six stories, there’s like 12 or 13 angles represented in the film. You get to see little things from different perspectives and you start getting bits and pieces that frankly weren’t present in the other films.
When I arrived in Rwanda, I realized that even though those films were important in raising awareness and consciousness, they were like accusatory politics — blame who, figure out who was wrong. It wasn’t about capturing the spirit and experience of that country. It was like they didn’t have a culture before or after the war. Vietnam is a country and a war. But you hear the word “Vietnam” and it’s a war. And what happened in Rwanda was a tragedy, but they were a people and country as well. I was really trying to bring out that other dimension we hadn’t seen before.
You were in the Peace Corps prior to filmmaking?
I have a Masters in Education and right after receiving that degree, I went into the Peace Corps. From 2000 to 2002 I was living in West Africa and I didn’t have any money to take a vacation back to the United States. So while I was there, I went to Ghana and I visited the slave castles in Amina and it was a very powerful and moving experience. Walking away from the slave castle to my next destination, I made the decision that filmmaking was a thing I was going to try to do next. I was just asking myself, what would I do and if I died doing it, would I be okay? And film was the answer.
The subject of the film suggests violent scenes and warfare. Instead you had testimonies of soldiers narrating their own stories. What was the decision behind that?
It was a twofold idea. I explored the idea of violence, but violence is expensive in independent filmmaking. Sometimes people use violence as a shocker and sometimes it’s appropriate to show the horror of certain things, but blood and bodies, car chases, squibs and bullets cost a lot of money. And they’re dangerous. And we didn’t have the time or the luxury.
Also, my team believed early on that showing faceless bodies and killing doesn’t do anything to prevent genocides or prevent war. It’s making one drop of blood valuable. It’s harder to kill someone you see as a mother, a brother, a friend, or a son, or uncle, or if you have crush on them. It’s harder to take their life and that’s what we we’re trying to do.
We had this tragic thing called the Rwandan genocide that’s always in the background. We feel the horror, we hear it, we know it’s there. You’re walking on eggshells waiting to see something crazy happen, but the real craziness is in the human interactions.
Were there any other production concerns you had?
The whole film was a production concern. We were in Africa and fortunately, I speak French and there’s four languages being spoken at almost any given time in Rwanda — KinyaRwanda, French, English and Swahili, so you don’t know what language you’re speaking. Some of my crew didn’t speak any English, so I was the only one who could communicate with them in French and translate.
Lighting and equipment were a hard thing in East Africa; one of our producers had to take money across three countries to grab equipment and drive it back into Rwanda. I mean, every day on that set could’ve been the last day. You know, when I was writing the script I called a friend of mine who’s a script consultant. And she said to me before I wrote the first line, “Think about those million souls that are out there. They got your back on this.”
How was the process of working with actors who have been through that?
I respected completely what they had been through and I didn’t want to commodify any suffering. I didn’t ask anybody how much they suffered, what they suffered, what they did or their participation. I dealt with them as actors. And if the scene was too tough, after we shot they would walk away, take a moment and then come back. Our story is about forgiveness and I had actors say to me, “I wouldn’t be able to forgive if it were my family.”
And with the representations of Muslims in the film, was that something you thought about in terms of resisting stereotypes?
The initial grant and the initial story that Ishmael wanted to tell was about the Muslim influence. Very few people realize that when the genocide started, the head Muslim leader issued a fatwah against killing and it inadvertently made Mosques some of the safest places in the country. That story was never told in the mainstream media. It was never told anywhere.
But it’s not revolutionary to show truth, and it shouldn’t be. It’s like, yeah, there are good Muslims and bad Muslims, there are good Christians, there are bad Christians. African skin can be portrayed in a beautiful way. Africa can be shown without showing animals and the safari. Africa can be shown without a white person mediating the experience of the black characters or making an audience connect or teaching the local people how to save themselves. We’re so used to certain stories being told and we think that’s truth or that’s right, and it’s like, no, the Africa that I know is a far more complex, far more beautiful. I didn’t go on safari in Africa. I know people.
How was the Sundance experience?
When we won that night, it was pretty… I don’t covet awards, I think it’s all politics. I don’t believe in any of it. I don’t think if your film gets into a festival, it makes it good. If it doesn’t get in, doesn’t make it bad. It’s all a game and I embrace that. So when we won, I was really shocked and blown away. But sometimes you need some external validation to remind yourself that you’re not a hack, that you’re not vacant and not an impostor.
Do you have any insight for filmmakers who want to tackle a larger social issue and tell an intimate story?
People argue all the time about political films versus apolitical films; I’ve never seen a good film that wasn’t political. To not address an issue, or to make nonsense that doesn’t change anybody’s life, that’s very political. That means you let the status quo be as it is. But making films where the subject matter is important is tough, because you have to package it in a way that the audience will swallow it. But that shouldn’t scare you. Embrace it. It’s such a privilege to be in this medium. Do something meaningful. Why waste money and people’s time and energy?
And just because you make a film about cancer or police brutality doesn’t make it good. You have to work on your craft. I won Sundance and people think it’s magic or an overnight thing. I’ve been making films for nine years now. I’ve been studying everyone. I’ve volunteered and worked with so many amazing filmmakers and I’ve honed my craft so by the time I got the opportunity to make “KinyaRwanda,” I was a few steps ahead of the game. That’s why we were able to make the film in 16 days and for a production budget of $250,000. It was because of my craft was in place. So, learn your craft. Make things that are important and enjoy the process.
The other thing is, try to embrace the process as much as the final product. I see a lot of filmmakers killing themselves and torturing themselves and I tend to do it myself, but always in keeping things in perspective. It’s only a film.