Documentary topics are rarely grimmer than Rwandan genocide. Judge Joel Pearce weighs the evidence: is Ghosts of Rwanda a bandwagon jumper or a legitimate exploration of the tragedy?
Rwanda was supposed to be easy.
There have been several documentaries released lately covering the Rwandan genocide. They are obviously trying to cash in on the popularity of Hotel Rwanda, and with good reason. A good documentary allows us to see and hear the real people involved in a situation, replacing some of the slanted emotional impact of fiction with accuracy and truth. Ghosts of Rwanda, originally aired on PBS, may not be the definitive look at Rwanda, but it's a great film for people who want a detailed overview of the Rwandan genocide.
Ghosts of Rwanda was created in 2004 as a retrospective look at what happened in Rwanda and how little was done by the rest of the world to stop it. To that extent, it shares a perspective with Hotel Rwanda, pointing a finger at the unwillingness of the western world to do anything. We stood by, arguing over the definition of genocide and whether or not we had enough vested interest in Rwanda to make it worth the risk of losing lives there. This is an embarrassment for our society because once again, when a group of people needed us the most, we failed to act. After the Holocaust, it was argued that there were hints of what happened to the German Jews during the second World War, and that we should have investigated more and helped them out. In the case of Rwanda, there weren't just rumblings and hints. We knew what was going on because there was film footage of the genocide taking place on the news, right during the event. And still we did nothing until it was too late, until 800,000 people were murdered in Rwanda. This is the main point of the documentary, and it is handled with simplicity and power.
Of course, it seems so simple in retrospect. In the heat of the situation, the politicians were burned by what had happened in Somalia, and were afraid of the UN troops being slaughtered in the middle of a fierce civil war. The Tutsi forces didn't want a large international presence either, and had the UN come in with too much force, they were afraid of escalating the conflict further. Also, the politicians in the United States (and elsewhere) didn't feel enough political pressure to risk sending in troops. We didn't demand action from them, which is one of the reasons that none was taken. Afterwards, as people waded through the bodies of the dead, it seemed a lot clearer.
And so, we must now bear witness to the tragedy of our own inaction, and hope that our culture is better able to make these decisions in the future. Fortunately, bearing witness to the events of the Rwandan genocide is one of the things that Ghosts of Rwanda does very well. It uses a mix of interviews and archival footage to great effect. Almost everything discussed in the interviews is verified by at least one other person, so it feels more factually robust than some documentaries I have seen. We hear from a wide range of people, from soldiers on both sides of the conflict to UN peace keepers to some of the foreign aid workers who refused to leave. Most of their stories have been documented elsewhere. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general in charge of the UN troops, was at the center of Shake Hands with the Devil. The smuggling of Tutsi refugees was handled in Hotel Rwanda. This production covers a lot of ground though, and the archival footage is also remarkably assembled. Some of the scenes are relentlessly graphic and horrifying, doing nothing to protect us from the reality of what happened.
In addition to the tragedy, we also get to see what was accomplished by the few people who refused to leave or give up. It takes a lot of guts to stand up against a situation that dangerous, and it's critical that we see the good deeds of the people who would rather risk their own lives than to run away from danger. This emphasis on heroism also shows how much good can be done by one person who is willing to make a difference. How many people could have been saved if there had been a few hundred more people willing to do the same? Ghosts of Rwanda wears its perspective and mission on its sleeve, and I believe that's a good thing. If the problem as stated is our society's tendency to deliberate until it's too late to act, then Frontline should be applauded for their willingness to cut right to the chase.
The transfer on the disc is acceptable, with little done to it since its original television run. Ghosts of Rwanda is presented in letterboxed 1.85:1, and the image is perfectly acceptable. The news footage has been maintained well, and the interview footage is sharp and clear. An anamorphic transfer would have allowed for sharper visuals, but since the source quality is the limiting factor here, it probably makes no difference on a normal television. The sound is clear as well, and although some of the news footage is hard to understand at times, the track is generally pleasing to listen to. Although there are no extras on the disc, there are some links to the film's home page at pbs.org that are still active, and offer additional information, both for viewers and educators.
Ghosts of Rwanda holds its own in the steady stream of documentaries on the Rwandan genocide. It lacks the detail that some of its peers have, but it offers a clear, strongly voiced, vivid overview of a tragedy that shouldn't have happened. It makes a good companion piece to Hotel Rwanda, and is recommended for anyone who feels they should more deeply explore what occurred.
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