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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

San Francisco Film Society review: “Munyurangabo” Lee Isaac Chung explores Rwanda’s Lost Generation, screens Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, San Francisco, June 12-18, 2009

Sangwa and Munyurangabo from Lee Isaac Chung's "Munyurangabo."  Image courtesy of Film Movement.

Sangwa and Munyurangabo from Lee Isaac Chung's "Munyurangabo." Image courtesy of Film Movement.

It has now been 15 years since the tragic genocide in Rwanda which in 100 days claimed an estimated 800,000 Tutsi lives at the hands of Hutu power.   As abstract and distant as that event may have seemed to outsiders, the pain has lingered in Rwandan society and the young children who suffered the traumatic massacre of parents, relatives and friends are now young adults and are still grappling with issues of loss, vengeance and healing.      “Munyurangabo” is a compelling feature film that follows two Rwandan young men– roommates and best friends—one Hutu and one Tutsi– who are part of that lost generation as they set out on a journey with a ominous mission of retribution that quickly turns into much more for each of them.   The fact that the film was co-written and directed by Korean-American Lee Isaac Chung, who must have been a youth himself when the genocide occurred and that it was shot on location in less than two weeks with non-professional actors makes it all the more intriguing.  It is also the first narrative feature in the Kinyarwanda language, a Bantu language which is spoken primarily in Rawnda but also in Southern Uganda and in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The story opens in a bustling open market in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, as Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) steals a large blood stained machete from a vendor and hides it away in his backpack.  He later meets up with Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) who has spent their hard-earned money, that was earmarked for bus tickets, to buy himself a colorful shirt, forcing the boys to hitchhike and walk.   The story unfolds slowly in bits and pieces and parallels the slowness of life that is a reality in Rwandan villages where families labor all day at their small plots and at attending to the very basic necessities of life.  As the boys make their way along the roads and dirt paths of rural Uganda, we are struck by the land’s lush and fertile beauty and at the same time aware that these may have been killing fields.   While their final destination is not revealed, the boys intend to make a brief stopover in Sangwa’s village, which he left three years ago for undisclosed reasons. 

Sangwa’s homecoming is the story on the surface.  His mother greets him with unconditional love, cuddling him and feeding him with a spoon and delights in his gift of fabric and soap.  His father (Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyinka) cannot contain the flurry of emotion bombarding him and lectures Sangwa sternly about abandoning his family and about the meaning of honor and responsibility.   Later, he forgives Sangwa and praises him lovingly for his work repairing a foundation wall of their mud hut. 

As happy as Sangwa’s parents are to be reunited with their son, old wounds start to fester when they learn that Munyurangabo is a Tutsi.  As his parents instruct him to abandon his trip and to remain in the village and to build a life with them, we can’t help but wonder how they acted during the massacre.  Were they at all complicit with the Hutus who carried out the killings?   This element of doubt is critical to our understanding of the gyrations that Rwandan society went through as friends, families and neighbors turned on each other.  As Munyurangabo is treated more and more as an unwelcome guest, we feel for him and sense his volatility.  He is triggered by the negative vibes coming from Sangwa’s family and equally by the deep love between Sangwa’s family which causes him to mourn his parents, both dead, all the more. 

After very real and raw awkwardness and avoidance, Sangwa tells Munyurangabo that he has doubts about their journey and about accompanying Munyurangabo to find and to kill the Hutu man who murdered his father.   What unfolds is a remarkably real and intimate story, stark and penetrating.  Edouard B. Uwayo’s poetry is masterfully used as a backdrop, conveying what is not said, what cannot be said by these characters who are forced to become men before our eyes. 

Resources abound on Rwanda but Philip Gourevitch’s “The Life After”  in the May 4, 2009 New Yorker is excellent, as is the magazine’s podcast “Rwanda in Recovery.”   JUSTWATCH, The International Justice Watch Discussion List is an online searchable forum which captures daily international news coverage of international war crimes tribunals for Rwanda (and ex-Yugoslavia) as well lively discussion of related issues including the conflicts which gave rise to the tribunals, the International Criminal Court and international humanitarian law (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes).  

“Munyurangabo shows June 12-18, 2009 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, San Francisco.  Screens at 2:15 pm, 4:40 pm, 7:10 pm, 9:25 pm.

June 16, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment