Judge Joe Armenio sees virtue and flaws in Raoul Peck's thoughtful take on Rwandan genocide.
"Every year in April, I remember how quickly life ends."—Augustin Muganza
Sometimes in April, made for HBO by Haitian director Raoul Peck (Lumumba), is bound to be compared to Terry George's Hotel Rwanda, the other major fiction film from 2004 about the Rwandan genocide. I liked Peck's film better than George's: it's more thoughtful, has a wider scope, and is less wedded to the cliches of the Hollywood action movie. Both films, however, raise some thorny questions about the most effective ways of representing genocide on film.
Facts of the Case
This doesn't seem like the place for a detailed recap of the genocide itself, so a brief and inadequate one will have to do: Suffice it to say that the dispute was between Hutus and Tutsis, traditional ethnic groups of vague and shifting composition. The imperialist Belgians had taken advantage of these "tribal" differences, hardening the lines between the groups and playing them against each other for purposes of conquest. In 1994, Hutu extremists assassinated the moderate Hutu president and set out murdering every Tutsi they could find. From April until June, an estimated 800,000 people died, until a rebel Tutsi army defeated the Hutus and put an end to the slaughter.
The main character ("hero" is probably too strong a term) of Sometimes in April is Augustin Muganza (Idris Elba, The Wire) a Rwandan army officer and a Hutu. He is, however, married to a Tutsi woman (Carole Karemera, a Rwandan actress), harbors no hatred for Tutsis, and has no idea that the genocide is coming until it actually begins. His brother, Honore, is an extremist journalist who delivers genocidal rants against the Tutsis on the radio, one of the primary means by which fervor was spread. The main narrative concerns Augustin's attempts to save himself and his family; one plot thread picks up the story 10 years later, as Augustin attends the tribunal at which his brother is being tried for his part in the genocide. Peck also tries to explain why help from the United States or United Nations never arrived, using a subplot involving a concerned State Department official (Debra Winger) and her frustrated attempts to take action.
One of the primary virtues of the film is its sense of place: at the risk of considerable inconvenience and hardship, Peck chose to film in Rwanda, staging recreations of events from the genocide in their actual locations (Peck says in his commentary that while the film deals with fictional characters, most of its incidents come from actual stories that he was told by people who lived through the genocide). This devotion to "realism" gives the images a depth and solidity that Hotel Rwanda, which was filmed in South Africa, lacks. However, there are limits to this kind of realism: Listening to Peck's commentary, one is struck by his faith that a filmmaker can reproduce reality, but I'm not so sure. Indeed, the Rwandan genocide, with its literally indescribable depths of horror and absurdity, is one of those events that tests the limits of traditional realistic storytelling. Any re-creations, like the ones found in Sometimes in April, are bound to seem like pale copies of what actually happened. What are filmmakers to do, then? Certainly they shouldn't close up shop and declare genocide off-limits because they can't fully convey its horrors. I'm not sure what a successful film about Rwanda would look like: maybe some surrealist genius is working on it right now. I do know that Peck's realism strikes me as sincere and frequently moving but ultimately ineffective.
The film's wide scope is also a combined virtue and vice. Peck isn't content with the literally and narratively cramped universe of Hotel Rwanda; he wants to show us every level of Rwandan society, as well as explaining why the Americans didn't help and dramatizing the ways that the genocide persists in memory. This ambition is admirable, and one comes away from the film with a deeper understanding of the ways in which the genocide unfolded, which Peck would probably consider his most important accomplishment. This ambition, though, causes the narrative to become too convoluted for its own good. The viewer is never confused, but the proliferation of plots and flashbacks causes a certain lack of focus; no one event carries the dramatic weight it probably should, because Peck seems a bit rushed to move on to his next point. The sequences with Winger are an admirable attempt to convey the absurd bureaucratic rationalizations that accompanied our refusal to send aid, but the scenes themselves are dramatically awkward and seem to have been dropped in from another movie.
The main extra on HBO's DVD is Peck's commentary, which I've already mentioned. It's structured as an interview with film critic Elvis Mitchell, which doesn't seem necessary; Peck has plenty to say and doesn't need the prodding of an interviewer. The main theme of the commentary is Peck's devotion to "realism"; he describes the troubles (and pleasures) which he and his crew encountered working in Rwanda, and the ways in which he sought to recreate the stories that he had been told about the genocide. Peck and Mitchell never mention Hotel Rwanda by name, but it always lurks as an implicit object of criticism, a film that was not ambitious or realistic enough for Peck's taste. The DVD also includes a 13-minute "making-of" featurette, a promotional piece with typically unilluminating brief interviews from cast and crew, and some nice footage of the film's premiere in Kigali, Rwanda. There is also a detailed timeline which outlines the events of the genocide; it might be a good idea to read this before watching the movie, especially if you don't know much about Rwanda.
HBO's widescreen transfer is fine, and the sound conveys the dialogue adequately (the sound on the "making-of" featurette is badly out-of-sync, but the film itself is fine). The film's dialogue is mostly in English, but viewers should turn on the English subtitles anyway; important dialogue is occasionally spoken in Kinyarwanda, and is only translated if the subtitles are on .
One of Peck's more interesting moves was to make his main character a Hutu and a member of the military, but neither a villain or a hero. He's a strong and imposing, but ultimately passive, man, refusing to believe that the worst could happen, acting too late to prevent anything. Augustin serves as a symbol not just of the world's passivity in the face of genocide, but of political apathy in general; this is, above all, an activist film, one designed to inform its viewers about injustice and rouse them to fight it. It's a thoughtful, ambitious movie, but ultimately it's unsatisfying; traditional realism is just not the best way to tell this story.
Way too moral and intelligent to be guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Raoul Peck, Conducted by Elvis Mitchell
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