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April 3, 2007

Rwanda film draws unrealistic picture of Redemption

First-time filmmaker Felicia Middlebrooks’s self-written and directed documentary Somebody’s Child: The Redemption of Rwanda premiered in Chicago Saturday. The winner of the New York Film Festival’s award for best short documentary, it was the centerpiece of the third annual program of Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artists Now (WITASWAN). The film began to roll amidst a general air of excitement and bonhomie. The event was an opportunity for members of many different women’s organizations to meet and socialize.

The first scene is telling. We see, as sinister music plays, discolored stock footage of the genocide. Then the music swells, color returns, and Middlebrooks’s smooth voiceover tells us, as the huge smiles of Rwandan children crowd the screen, that the people of Rwanda are thriving. It’s reminiscent of a weight-loss infomercial: Look at Rwanda, it’s in great shape now! It’s also indicative of how Somebody’s Child intends to tell us what to think, rather than show us what is happening in the aftermath of genocide.

Clichés abound in the voiceover narration. The genocide is described as a battle between life and death, and more often than not, death wins. If experience is the greatest teacher, Middlebrooks says, the children of Rwanda apparently all deserve degrees. They are wise beyond their years. We have to take that on her word, though: Not a single child is interviewed. We are asked to trust not the words of the survivors, but the words of Middlebrooks.

But amateurish production and ham-fisted narration alone can’t sink a film. All could have been redeemed if it were not for the unnecessarily hammy and rose-tinted way Middebrooks treats Rwanda’s so-called redemption. The renaissance for her consists of two things: economic development, mostly sustained by the work of women; and forgiveness for past crimes. Middlebrooks shows us the communes of brutalized widows who eke out an agrarian living with the help of local microfinance and nonprofit organizations. This is the best part of the film. Although the evidence of Rwanda’s economic redemption is anecdotal, the strength and resilience of its people are clear. But even here, we are told what to think. Middlebrooks went to Rwanda with a group of women who contribute to a nonprofit called Hands for Hope, and perhaps the most unintentionally striking scene occurs when one of the women tearfully speaks to the Rwandan widows, saying, “We may look like we have a lot, but you have inner strength. We all want to be more like you.” This sappy paternalism, or maybe maternalism, was at times extreme.

The second aspect of Rwanda’s supposed redemption, its forgiveness of past crimes, is more dubious than the first. The film portrays the country as having moved past its ethnic animosities. A few Rwandans interviewed claim that, by and large, Hutus have been forgiven for their crimes without retribution. But we then learn that 100,000 Hutus, including children, are in jail, and tribal affiliations are simply not talked about in the country. Many of those who took part in the genocide are tried for crimes in “grass courts,” communal tribunals in which offenders are judged by their victims. It’s not an easy task to wipe away the legacy of genocide; I only object to the way the film tries to make the problem seem resolved.

Although many Rwandans, from peasants to government officials, are interviewed, their words largely concern their experiences during the genocide, not their opinions on the economic development of the country or the extent to which Tutsis have forgiven Hutus. We are mostly asked to believe what Middlebrooks has to say.

Although Middlebrooks claimed during the question and answer session after the movie that this was the only film available about the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, the Academy Award–winning documentary God Sleeps in Rwanda deals with similar themes. Somebody’s Child will not be widely available until Middlebrooks can secure the distribution rights. WITASWAN’s website is www.films42.com/witaswan.asp.