November 29, 2009 -- “My Neighbor My Killer” is the third in a series of four documentary films by writer-director Anne Aghion exploring the emotional aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Africa. It is a film about heartbreaking loss, bitterness, anger, resignation and forgiveness. The other two films in this series are “Gacaca, Living Together Again in Rwanda?” (2002) and “In Rwanda We Say... The Family That Does Not Speak Dies” (2004). Another film on the same subject just released is “The Notebooks of Memory.” These are all available at Anne Aghion's web site (http://www.anneaghionfilms.com/). These films revolve around a remarkable effort by the Rwandan government to reunite the country by a process called Gacaca (Ga-CHA-cha), which literally means, “Justice on the grass.” It is a system of courts in which ordinary citizens act as judge, jury, prosecutors and defendants. It seeks justice and reconciliation through confession and forgiveness.
This documentary film does not show the killing that took place in 1994. It doesn't go into the history behind the violence. It doesn't quote statistics. There are no talking heads to explain away the genocide in dispassionate, academic terms. This film shows us the victims and the perpetrators straight on. Here, they are neighbors in one small town. In one scene, they are seated right next to each other, talking about what happened during the genocide in which as many as one million people (as much as 20 percent of the nation's population), many of them children, were brutally killed.
These were in-your-face primitive, violent killings with knives and clubs. What made this genocide different than most is that the victims, the Tutsi minority, share the same culture, ethnicity, ancestry and language as their killers, the Hutus. The two groups were separated in an arbitrary manner by German and Belgian rulers and by Catholic missionaries starting about 100 years ago. The Belgians classified Tutsi as anyone owning more than 10 cows or having a long nose. The conflicts between the two groups originated in political and economic favors alternately given the Hutus and Tutsis by the church and colonial powers, causing resentment. Europeans also introduced primitive ideas of racial differences among the groups, ignoring their similarities and the fact they routinely intermarried, these ideas later contributed to the genocide.
This film removes all that background information and focuses on just a few people in one village who were affected by the genocide. The central figures are Félicité Nyirasangwa and Euphrasie Mukarwemera, two Hutu women married to Tutsi husbands. Their children, considered Tutsi, and their husbands were murdered, in some cases in front of their very eyes. The film also focuses on a couple of the killers, Abraham Rwamfizi, who tries to return to the community after serving time in prison, and another ex-prisoner, Vianney Byirabo, who gives emotionless accounts of terrible deeds.
The words of Félicité Nyirasangwa and Euphrasie Mukarwemera are heartbreaking. Although they are alive, they consider themselves among the dead. Some of these women said they asked to be killed along with their families, or instead of their families, but the killers refused to kill them because they are Hutu, or because they would suffer more by staying alive. They have resigned themselves to their fate to live out their lives without any hope for a future. The film spans 10 years from the aftermath of the killings into the Gacaca trials. At first, Félicité and Euphrasie seem to have high hopes that justice will be served as the time of the Gacaca trials approaches, but later, it seems they become resigned to disappointment in the outcomes.
Félicité and Euphrasie seem ambivalent about the film project, how it intrudes into their private feelings, and how outsiders cannot begin to comprehend their plight. This probably happens a lot in documentary films, but most of the time it is edited out. To her credit, Anne Aghion leaves these comments in the film. Aghion asks the women how they feel about the Hutu prisoners being released and returning to her village.
Euphrasie says, “How can one ask us what the return of the prisoners stirs up in us? We saw them return, that's all. How are we supposed to feel? Yes, it's true. Our killers have returned. What can we do? Why speak of it? Go speak to them!”
At another point in the film, Euphrasie says, “If it were up to us we would remain silent, not talk about it. We'd only talk to the person who shares our experience, who deserves to hear.”
She says of the prisoners returning to the village, “We can only hope that they'll toe the line, that they won't start again.”
Félicité, also present at the same interview, asks, “Start what?”
Euphrasie replies, “Chopping us to pieces.”
Félicité replies, “They already wiped everyone out! What's left for them? Having taken my children, they'll come back for me? Let them come and finish me off right away. Having taken my children and leaving me to wander alone, let them sweep away what's left of me.”
Euphrasie replies, “You're totally right. I'm already dead. May they hurry up and finish us off. They're taking too long for my taste.” These comments are made almost casually, masking the women's underlying anger and despair in a cloak of bitter sarcasm. These comments also seem to reflect the women's feeling of powerlessness and their lack of individual identity outside their immediate families and their resignation to circumstances beyond their control. The feelings of resignation will be the most foreign to most American viewers of this film. The common American impulse for people who have suffered losses like Félicité and Euphrasie have is not resignation, but revenge: To grab a gun and kill those who have killed family and loved ones, or to insist the law kill those who have hurt us. That is a form of empowerment. At least it gives the illusion of empowerment and retribution.
In Africa, there seems to be a different dynamic at work. The film would have us believe that murderers and their victims can live side by side in a kind of détente. In the film, a murderer petulantly asks for clemency from the Gacaca open-air court, even though he is not facing additional time for his crime. After seeking forgiveness from the mother of the children he murdered, he wants clemency for this effort. The mother, seated on the ground at the court, said, with weary resignation, “For a long time he didn't seek forgiveness from anyone. But recently he came and begged me to forgive him. I forgave him. The State had done so before me. The court can also forgive him for my children who are dead. Go ahead and grant him clemency," she says with a dismissive wave of her hand. Then she lowers her head in sorrow, putting her hand on her head.
During the Gacaca trials, as shown in the film, the stories of the victims are heartbreaking. The murders are horrible in their savagery and ferocity. The criminals described in the Gacaca accounts lack any semblance of humanity. Those on trial seem to be just like American criminals. Their primary tactic is to claim little or no responsibility for the genocide. Some confess, most do not. The sentences imposed by the court range from harsh to no additional time served. The murderers seem to have no remorse for what they have done. In return for the genocide, Hutus have gained land and wealth at the expense of the Tutsis. The film shows some progress in more than 20 years since the genocide, but it seems to me these Gacaca trials are not really healing Rwanda. They provide a platform for victims to express themselves and have their day in court, but they also stir up old feelings of hatred and resentment.
What is lacking in the Gacaca trials is any sort of real justice, the only sentences given are prison terms. What I have in mind is something suggested in the movie “Gandhi” where Mohandas K. Gandhi (played by Ben Kingsley) suggests the following to a remorse-torn Hindi who has killed a Muslim boy as revenge for the death of his family at the hands of Muslims in strife-torn India in the 1940s, “I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed and raise him as your own. Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.” Of course, this only works if you can find a Hutu torn with remorse. If there were any in the film, they hid their feelings well. This film rates a B.
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