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Film review: “Earth Made of Glass” 15 years later, Rwandan Genocide Survivors share their unending quest for truth

In "Earth Made of Glass," Deborah Scranton's investigative documentary about Rwanda, Jean Pierre Sagahutu, genocide survivor, is haunted by his father's unsolved murder and has scoured the Rwandan countryside on a 15 year search. Photo courtesy San Francisco Film Society.

Fifteen years after the brutal genocide in Rwanda that pitted Hutu against Tutsi and left 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu moderates dead, Deborah Scranton’s documentary “Earth Made of Glass” is a monumentally necessary film.  In this compelling documentary, Scranton focuses in on Jean Pierre Sagahutu, a survivor of the genocide who has been on a 15 year quest to find out the truth behind who murdered his father, mother, three sisters and four brothers.  Juxtaposed with Sagahutu’s personal quest is the gripping commentary of Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s President, who has spent the past 15 years on his own quest–trying to bring global attention to France’s active involvement, under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, in training and arming Hutu militias in Rwanda and Congo, who led massacres of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. 

Intertwined with Kagane’s commentary is the story of Rose Kabuye, his Chief of State Protocol (and former officer in the Tutsi Rawandan Patriotic Front (RPF), former Mayor of the capital city Kigali and former member of parliament), who was arrested in 2008 in Frankfurt, Germany, on a French warrant, on charges of terrorism.  Her arrest came after a report detailing France’s hidden involvement in the genocide was released.  Kabuye was detained on charges of involvement in the 1994 murder of former Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, who was Hutu, when his plane was shot down, an event seen as a catalyst for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.  Ms. Kabuye was accused of harboring commandos who shot down the plane.  She waived her right to extradition and was transferred to France, where she spent months in prison.  President Kagame shrewdly used the arrest as an opportunity to launch a counter-attack, denying that Kabuye, and the 8 other suspects, were responsible for shooting down the plane and tried to expose the French role.  The film investigates Kabuye’s quid pro quo arrest, asserting the charges were unfounded.  

Rose Kabuye, Rwandan President Paul Kagame's Chief of State Protocol, was arrested on November 9, 2008 in Germany under an arrest warrant issued by France. Kabuye was suspected of participating in the 1994 downing of a plane carrying former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana whose death triggered a genocide. Photo: Simon Maina, AFP, Getty Images.

Scranton’s use of two simultaneously unfolding and intertwined narratives is complicated by the fact that Rose Kabuye’s story is not explored with enough depth to fully connect her arrest in Germany back to the charges of her involvement in (Hutu) Habyarimana’s assassination and the beginning of the genocide.   Despite this, President Kagane’s forthright way of speaking about the lingering concerns that face his nation is compelling.  What Scranton has gifted us with is Jean Pierre Sagahutu, an unforgettable hero, who humanizes this event of incomprehensible dimensions, lends raw immediacy and closes the gap between past and present.  Scranton seems to have unfiltered access to Sagahutu’s deepest thoughts and feelings and that poignancy is what anchors this film.  Sagahutu has suffered immensely, losing all nine of his family members, but for the sake of his children and his country, he takes the high road, seeking the truth over revenge.  In so doing, he models a way for a broken nation to heal and for its children to grow up without the scars of their parents.

“Of course you want justice, but before justice, you want the truth,” says Sagahutu early in the film.  “Even if they put the killer in prison for life, for you it’s for nothing …for the someone who killed my brother, sister, my mom, my father, what I want to know from him is the truth– that’s all.”  As Sagahutu’s story unfolds, we learn that he survived the genocide by jumping in a septic tank where he stayed for 2 months and 16 days, surviving on food handed down to him on a dog chain every few days.  When he emerged, he learned that his entire family had been slaughtered.  What ensues is his quest to find out the details of his father’s death. His father was a doctor who had been in practice for 40 years and was a well-respected member of the community.  He was called in to the hospital during the genocide and abducted en route at a road block and never seen again.  His son systematically questions everyone he can find about his father, including those who watched the Gacaca (reconciliation trials) in the village.   He learns that a man was tried for killing a man in the very place where his father was last seen.   As the story unfolds, and he goes on to confront this man in person, we wonder how we would endure if we were in his shoes.   Sagahutu holds on with a special tenacity that few could muster, affording this man a humanity was not extended to his father.  He gives the man the chance to speak, knowing full well that the story he is hearing will likely be a combination of the truth, lies and justifications.  He is patient.    

We also learn that, geopolitically speaking, the Rwandan genocide was infinitely complex–a situation where global politics trumped humanitarian concerns and where humanitarian concerns was the excuse given for lack of international military response.  Scranton devotes a significant portion of the film to France’s role in the genocide but still fails at clearly driving home all the salient connections between France’s vested history in the French-speaking country, its backing of the Hutus and the French-trained paramilitaries in Rwanda and Congo.  If the claims regarding a direct French influence as a factor in creating and sustaining the genocide were laid out more systematically, the film would be stronger.   In the absence of this clarity, it is a very good thing that Sagahutu’s story is compelling enough to assume the lead narrative.  

H.E. President Paul Kagame, Genocide Commemoration speech Nyanza, Rwanda, April 2009. Image courtesy Deborah Scranton.

While the film does not address the American role, it is worth noting that the Clinton Administration was forefront in opposing international action, a highly-calculated political decision which Clinton has recently publicly expressed remorse over.  Shocked by unexpected American military casualties in Somalia and a humiliating withdrawal, Washington insisted that a cease-fire in Rwanda, impossible to attain quickly, had to precede humanitarian aid.  And so there we stood.

While not implicitly stated, the most glaring reason for the international community’s inaction was that impoverished and perennially troubled Rwanda had no strategic, political, or economic significance.  All it had were growing piles of bodies.  If this situation is ever to change, we need more filmmakers like Scranton who are there to drive home the truth.

The road to healing in Rwanda as President Paul Kagame states is “to find a way midway between the need for justice and being held accountable and reconciliation.  Asking someone to put aside legitimate grievances is asking someone to sacrifice.  Forgiving for them is a price they have to pay for a better future but they know that will be made easier by the truth that is gained about what has happened and why it has happened.”  Nearly one million deaths, immeasurable heart-ache.  Never again, we hope.

“Earth Made of Glass,” Director and co-Producer Deborah Scranton; co-Producer, Reid Carolin; Music, Johan Söderqvist; Cinematography, P.H. O’Brien.   87 minutes, English

 Screens: Thursday, September 30, 2010, 7pm,   Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema. One Embarcadero Center, Promenade Level

Following the screening, an engaging panel discussion will address the functions, roles and processes of documentary film as a form of investigative journalism. Phil Bronstein, editor-at-large at the San Francisco Chronicle,  will moderate a discussion with director Deborah Scranton; Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and Mathilde Mukantabana, president of Friends of Rwanda. 

September 28, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment