Though a few films have shed light on the 1994 Rwandan genocide, none have captured the bitter massacre as "Kinyarwanda" does. It's a innovative portrait of six people immersed in horrific conflict. Strikingly authentic, the film adopts a newfound approach to the mass killings by featuring different points of view. This approach allows viewers a more personal look at the crisis that is easy to identify with. Each character's touching story resonates and grants audiences previously unexplored perspectives. First time director, Alrick Brown makes use his vast education and extensive research to tell a story that is both gravely humane and haunting.
April 7th marks the 18th annivesary of the tragic events and the start of the anual 100 Days of Comemoration (April 7- July7). The International Business Times had the chance to talk with Brown about the film's production and his take on Rwanda today, a country he considers to be "one of the most beautiful places" in the world.
In terms of your education, you have such an impressive background. How have your studies shaped the way you've approached filmmaking?
I have a BA in English with a minor in French, a Masters in Education and a Masters of Fine Arts in Film. These degrees are a reflection of my journey not only as an academic but also as an artist. Within each field of study are the seeds and the tools I use to enhance my craft. Though I am a horrible speller, English, my story of literature, storytelling, poetry, syntax, sentence structure and verbal communication are the foundations of my writing. Studying education has made me a better director, which is what a good teacher is. You have to have command of the classroom, and you use creativity and engagement as a part of discipline. You have to listen, interpret and adjust on the fly. A lesson plan and a screenplay have much in common. Both provide a blueprint for the journey ahead and ensure that you don't go too far off course, as well as providing a means of assessing your progress along the way. A good director, like a good teacher, also brings out the best in those around them. My job is to make people better by providing the opportunity and environment for them to succeed.
Interestingly enough, the film degree and specifically the NYU program taught me to incorporate my various skills in order to bridge the gap between the technical and theoretical, the idea and the reality of a moment, a scene or a piece.
You've been granted various accolades, such as the HBO Life Through Your Lens Emerging Filmmaker Award for "Death of Two Sons", what do you hope to achieve through your work?
I really do not make films for accolades. They do help to get the word out, and validation from your peers is always good, but I make my work for audiences. My job is oftentimes to tell people things they don't want to hear. My job is to speak to people's hearts rather than their minds. My filmmaking is the means through which I seek to transform the world.
What struck you most while researching Rwandan history for "Kinyarwanda"?
What struck me the most about Rwandan history is how little I actually knew about the country, the people, and the culture. It's like the place had an identity only because of the tragedy. I consider myself to be educated, and I was pretty clueless. Even with all the stories, films and news broadcasts I didn't know something as simple as the fact that Rwandans spoke a language called Kinyarwanda. How can you truly advocate, defend, honor or memorialize a people and a tragedy if you don't know their history? I guess you can but something will be lost in the process.
What films do you believe have adequately captured the Rwandan Genocide, if any?
The fact is that most of us knew and still know very little about the Rwandan Genocide. We have an arrogance of knowledge in the Western world. We read one book, see one film or read one article and we become experts, arguing our case at water coolers and in restaurants. Most of the films that have come out have some merit because they have brought awareness to the genocide. Without the celebrity and fame of Hotel Rwanda who knows what we would actually know about Rwanda. Some have done better than others. I think that the PBS Documentary Ghosts of Rwanda is a strong informational piece that everyone should see. The HBO film Sometimes in April is my favorite narrative on the subject. There is also an assortment of short and feature films and documentaries that Rwandans have crafted and are crafting themselves to share their stories, films that are worth seeking out.
Filming must have been extremely emotional. What were some of the most difficult scenes to shoot?
Every scene in this film was difficult to shoot for someone on our cast and crew, who were all affected by the genocide in some way. But the night we shot the scene where Jeanne finds both her parents on the floor deceased was a moment where it was probably the most visible on set. There was no violence, nothing graphic, just two bodies, a couple lying on the floor. Our Rwandan cast and crew needed time to compose themselves before each take. It was hard for all of us.
What's your take on the current state of Rwanda?
Rwanda is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to in my life. Unfortunately, I did not get to the smaller villages or the countryside. The people are amazing and the women are absolutely beautiful as you can see in the faces of our cast.
I was struck by how present the history was. There is a clear and conscious effort not to go back to hurtful ways of the past. Reconciliation is a part of the culture. I don't want to in any way romanticize the place, because it is not a utopia. Politics are politics and politicians are politicians. Capitalism is pervasive and many companies and organizations have much money invested there. There is still a disparity between rich and poor, between those who have the power and those who don't. But here I could be talking about the rest of the world. Hurt still exists, pain still exists and forgiveness is a long a difficult process. But they are trying and they are working hard. We could learn a few things from the people of Rwanda.
Do you think the film can aid the country in some way?
Film is one of the most powerful mediums of our time. It has the power to move masses. It has the power to inform. I hope our film adds to the dialogue about power of forgiveness. I hope it sheds more light on Rwanda. We screened the film at the Rwanda Film Festival, called Hillywood, to an amazingly humbling response. Rwandans were proud of the film, so we were proud of the film. But I will end by paraphrasing Robert Redford. When he was asked in an interview if films have the power to change things politically or socially, he said no. He said they might change how people dress or whether they wear a mustache but not the social order. He ended by saying, "But I will never stop trying." Neither will I.