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Laura Waters Hinson (David Livingston/Getty Images)

Miracles of reconciliation

Q&A | Witnessing 'radical forgiveness' in Rwanda taught filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson to forgive

Issue: "Agony and ecstasy," April 7, 2012

April 7 is the 18th anniversary of the start of one of history's most poignantly evil episodes.

On that day Rwandan Hutus started the mass murder of Tutsis, along with any Hutus who tried to protect Tutsis. They did not kill pseudo-scientifically, in gas chambers or through bombs dropped from on high, but mostly with machetes. They killed neighbors who had lived beside them and helped them for years.

An estimated 800,000 Rwandans-almost one out of eight-died. In 2008 Laura Waters Hinson, then 29, won the best student documentary Oscar for As We Forgive, a film about reconciliation in Rwanda between genocide perpetrators and survivors.

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What was the first movie you made? In the fifth grade, my friends and I on the cul-de-sac banded together and made a horror movie about a woman stabbed in the shower. We made sure the ketchup ran red down the drain. That was the beginning. Auspicious.

Let's fast-forward to college and a fellow named Tom. Tommy and I fell madly in love my junior year at Furman. We dated for three years and were engaged for about eight months. He ended up calling off the wedding. It was a very, very sad thing. No deception or anything like that, but he realized he was terrified of marriage. We broke up. I sold my dress on eBay and had to pay back all my bridesmaids for their dresses.

Eleven bridesmaids? Eleven. We lost thousands ... or my dad did. But more than that, I thought it was the end of the world and that the man I was supposed to marry was gone. I was deeply devastated.

Then what happened? I moved home to live with my parents, very dejected, asking, "What will I do with my life? I've lost everything." I thought, "Hey! What's crazier than going to film school? I have nothing to lose." The only film I'd done was that fifth-grade one.

Had things gone according to your happy plans, would you have gone to film school? I would have gotten a job, probably in marketing, and worked to put Tommy through graduate school.

So you went to film school and had to make a movie for your master's thesis ... I had no idea of what to do. In 2005 a group from my Anglican church was going to Rwanda to establish a partnership with a sister community there. My pastor said, "Laura, I don't know why, but I have a very strong sense that you need to be on this trip." I protested and protested and said I didn't want to raise the money, $3,000. Two weeks later the money appeared mysteriously and I went.

What did you find in Rwanda? I went thinking we would learn about the genocide and get to know the culture. Then the story took hold of me. This idea that you had tens of thousands of killers coming home to the places where they massacred people's families ... and people were being asked to forgive. I came home and spent the next year talking to people about the idea and raising funds. My church supported me. We took a student crew back a year later to make the film.

How did you find the people you interviewed? It was providential because we landed in Rwanda with no idea about interviewees. Our wonderful translator Emmanuel, a survivor of the genocide, would go first into the homes of widows and hear their stories. They were surprisingly open and honest.

Did you get any refusals? None. Both sets of perpetrators that we focused on had already publicly confessed their crimes. Their guilt and their shame were truly apparent on their faces. They wanted to tell the story, to lift the burden of guilt. Being in the film was a way for them to do it.

What effect did those dozens of hours of interviews have on you? The experience was incredibly hopeful for me even though it was one of the hardest things I've ever gone through-to listen, and then listen again and again through the editing process, to these stories of massacres and deaths, and to hear on the other end the way the stories turn out. The way the women were, over time, able to forgive, humbled me. I thought I was a good Christian and understood God, but when I went to Rwanda, came back, and meditated on the idea of radical forgiveness, I realized my view of God was very small. Those women helped me to search out my own heart: Could I forgive?

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