How long does it take to get from the red earth roads of post-genocide Rwanda to the palm-lined boulevards of Beverly Hills? For Laura Waters Hinson, American University film graduate, it took three years. On Saturday evening, June 7, the young filmmaker walked down the red carpet at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater to receive the gold medal for best documentary at the 35th annual Student Academy Awards. It was a high point in the personal and professional odyssey that led Hinson to produce As We Forgive, her film exploring forgiveness and reconciliation in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
"By nature, I'm a skeptic," says Hinson, and the film benefits from her natural feel for ambiguity. Far from making forgiveness its foregone conclusion, As We Forgive proceeds with a suspenseful sensitivity to the deep wounds of real Rwandans. Frame by frame, its raw, nuanced approach guides viewers skillfully through a topic that might drown in its own inherent pathos.
Hinson first traveled to Rwanda in 2005. Rwanda is a rolling emerald country south of Uganda, and among its largely rural and contemplative people, coffee grows on the hills and churches stand in the villages. But following the death of the Rwandese president in April 1994, the country descended into a genocidal frenzy that targeted the ethnic Tutsi minority. "Stamp out the Tutsi cockroaches!" became the Hutu government's official credo, and Hutu mobs went out into all Rwanda bearing machetes, clubs, and death lists inscribed with the names of their next-door neighbors. Approximately 1 million died.
Hinson found a country still reeling from the horror, but also a country working hard to put itself back together. One of the biggest challenges facing Rwanda was what to do with tens upon thousands of imprisoned participants in the genocide. To her wonder, Hinson learned that new Rwandan President Paul Kagame, faced with bursting prisons and a 150-year court backlog of untried murderers, had implemented a conditional release program for participants in the genocide.
"Common" killers, who had not been ringleaders but were swept into the genocidal fury, could go free if they had confessed their crimes and had already served a certain minimum sentence. Many took the opportunity, and to date there are 50,000 ex-prisoners walking the red dirt roads of Rwanda. They live in houses next to people with machete scars.
The story only got more unbelievable. Some of the genocidaires, Hinson heard, were asking forgiveness from the survivors. And here and there, survivors were giving it.
Hinson returned to Rwanda to gather footage in the summer of 2006. The stories she filmed tell of communities attempting, in their own ways, to heal the wounds of genocide. For a startling and growing minority, the curative of choice is forgiveness and reconciliation, but it doesn't come cheaply for anyone.
Hinson landed in Kigali with a shoestring budget, a student crew, and no one to interview. But with the help of a skilled and well-connected translator, she began to make headway. She soon learned that through Prison Fellowship Rwanda's Umuvumu Tree Project, ex-genocidaires who wanted to show their remorse were building houses for survivors. She met Rosaria, whose sister and nieces and nephews were bludgeoned to death by a man named Saveri. Rosaria and Saveri had taken part in a community reconciliation workshop, and she had publicly forgiven him for his crimes. Today, she lives in a house that Saveri helped to build for her.
She also spoke to a worker from CARSA, an organization that runs reconciliation workshops for survivors and ex-prisoners. The worker told her about Chantale and John. Chantale was a genocide survivor. John had murdered Chantale's father. After several years in prison, John heard Kagame's startling announcement on a transistor radio. He confessed his role in the killing of Chantale's father and was released. Several months later, he sought more than his physical freedom. He sought Chantale's forgiveness.
After days of reluctance, Chantale agreed to meet with John and the CARSA reconciliation worker while cameras were rolling. "Rwandans are a stoic people, normally," Hinson said, "but she just came unraveled on film." In the documentary's climactic scene, John keeps his eyes riveted to a tile on the floor, while he tells Chantale that he did an evil thing, and then says over and over again, "Have mercy."
Chantale cannot look at him. She doesn't listen, either, as she spills out the accusatory monologue of her despair. The reconciliation worker steps in: "Every time you look at him, you see your father. Every time he looks at you, he sees the blood. That is the problem."
Chantale leaves, unable to forgive that day. The ongoing struggle to do so is at the heart of the film, which looks unflinchingly at human relationships strained to the utmost: of churches, complicit in the genocide, spearheading the road to recovery; of killers released from the bars of jail to meet the barriers of survivors' contempt; of the depth of feeling that allows some Rwandans to feel they must forgive, and others to feel they cannot.
Reactions to the project have been mixed. Rwandans are enthusiastic, excited at the prospect of the world hearing stories that go beyond Hotel Rwanda. President Paul Kagame even granted Hinson an interview and fed her film crew lunch off of gold-rimmed presidential china. Others are wary. Actress Mia Farrow, who lent her voice to narrate the film, expressed concerns, not uncommon, about placing too great a burden on survivors to forgive the perpetrators of genocide.
Even after the hundreds of hours she's spent producing the film, Hinson hasn't found an answer to what she'd do in Rosaria's or Chantale's place. She can't conceive what she'd do if her husband was murdered and the government set the killer free. Could she forgive? Hard to say. But the survivors are being asked to do even more than forgive. They're being asked to reconcile. "Forgiveness asks you to give up your right to be angry," says Hinson. "Reconciliation asks something much greater. It asks you to enter back into relationship with the people you've forgiven. That's what the Rwandans are doing, and it's astonishing."
-Alyson Thoner is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. For information on screenings of As We Forgive, visit asweforgivethose.com.