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Last Updated: 04/03/2009Sometimes in April: When one fails, we all fail
Elliot Waring reviews the 2005 film Sometimes in April, written and directed by Raoul Peck.
Waring writes: "What is contained within this “review” is a brief summary of the film and some of the questions which jump off the screen as you watch. Other than that, this reviewer can only say, watch this film. Watch this film and let it be a lesson to you to never forsake your fellow man, to never let humanity fail on such an epic scale again, to never sit idly by while atrocities are played out in front of you. Allowing violence and pain to pass by you unquestioned is an act of violence in and of itself."
The backdrop of Sometimes in April, the Rwandan genocide that killed over 800,000 people 15 years ago, is not a new, unknown subject for most people, yet the film traverses the troubled landscape of Rwanda in 1994 with a startlingly frankness that makes watching it feel as if you're discovering these tragic events for the first time. The film offers a small glimpse into what life held and the decisions that some needed to make during that vicious and terrible time in human history. From the story of a man and his family to the backrooms and late night phone calls of international diplomacy the viewer is let into a world that seems almost too incredible to believe.
Sometimes in April is not a film you review in the typical sense. Any film that honestly depicts what happened during this period of time stands no matter what anyone thinks of it. As a fictional drama intent on giving outsiders some perspective on what life was like in Rwanda during the genocide, Sometimes in April succeeds unquestionably. What is contained within this “review” is a brief summary of the film and some of the questions which jump off the screen as you watch. Other than that, this reviewer can only say, watch this film. Watch this film and let it be a lesson to you to never forsake your fellow man, to never let humanity fail on such an epic scale again, to never sit idly by while atrocities are played out in front of you. Allowing violence and pain to pass by you unquestioned is an act of violence in and of itself.
Some of the first dialogue in the movie, between Augustin, a genocide survivor and now school teacher 10 years after that fateful April in 1994, and one of his students, paints a pretty clear picture that this is not going to be a film that offers the world any answers about why or how this could have happened. When asked if there was anything that they could have done to stop the violence, to stop the killings, Augustin takes a slow breath and says he doesn't know. This dialogue, followed by the onset of the heavy April rains, which signal the beginning of the Rwanda rainy season, set the tone for a film that is not made to create heroes or ease consciouses. Rather, it sets the tone for a film that is going to take one of the darkest times in recent modern history and display it directly in front of your face, forcing you to confront humanity's failure full on, with no filters or pulled punches.
The story follows Augustin, a Hutu, and his family as they try to navigate their way through the initial onslaught of violence that erupted after President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down. Honore, Augustin's brother and Hutu Power party member, is a radio journalist whose broadcasts are used to inspire members of the Hutu tribe to kill the “cockroach” Tutsis. Complicating matters is the fact that Augustin is married to a Tutsi, a now punishable 'crime' by the hardliner Hutu Power group who wish to rid the country of the Tutsi. In an attempt to save his wife and children Augustin begs his brother to use his celebrity to help them evade roadblocks and escape to safety. Leaving Augustin behind they make it through roadblocks set up by drunken Hutu wielding automatic weapons and machetes but are stopped at an official Army roadblock. Honore tries to use his popularity but it proves ineffective and the car they are traveling in is attacked, leaving the fate of Augustin's wife and children unknown.
As the movie progresses it inter-cuts between the journey of Augustin through the killing fields of Kigali in 1994 and school teacher Augustin as he wrestles with his demons debating whether or not he should travel to Tanzania to observe his brother's trial before the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Unwilling to forgive, but desperate to get answers about the fate of his family, Augustin goes to the trial. While seeing the prison where the war criminals are held and watching the proceedings of the trial, Augustin’s frustration overwhelms him and he can’t help voicing his concern that the whole trial is nothing but a show to ease the consciences of the international community. A friend sagely tells him that this trial is better than nothing, that Rwandans need something to help them heal their wounds and move on past this tragedy. But, by the end of the film, after seeing the violence and chaos of Rwanda in 1994, it is hard to not share his frustrations wondering how the trial of roughly 80 people, 10 years after the fact, is truly going to help those who have lost everything to forgive. A trial may help heal international wounds and begin the process of forgiveness, but how do you begin the process of forgiveness when your family was killed by your neighbor?
Before the attacks start (and even for a little after they begin) we are shown a troubled yet hopeful Augustin who still firmly believes that the hostility between the Hutu and Tutsi will not boil over into a conflict that will threaten his family. The viewer, although knowing full well what is to come, can't help but sympathize with Augustin, for who would have truly believed what was to come? This clash (between off-screen after the fact truth and on screen pre-conflict hope) is nothing short of heartbreaking and as the cold reality repeatedly shows itself to Augustin, and you see him broken down, it is hard to not lose any hope for the world you may have had within you. How is it that an event like this, an event that happened so quickly, could sneak up on someone? How could mounting tension between two groups so instantly transform into such a spate of killings?
Honore, Augustin's brother, who eventually ends up arrested and on trial for war crimes, was a popular radio host on a Hutu Power station before and during the genocide. In the build up to April and the killings, his radio station ran a constant commentary describing the injustices inflicted upon the Hutus by the “cockroach” Tutsis. The power of these radio stations (and consequently the media as a whole) is shockingly apparent throughout the movie. The Hutu Power leaders, understanding the potential the radio had as a means of mass communication, gave out free radios to ensure that all Hutus could hear the same messages and get the same information. Consequently, any time you see Hutu Power party members, whether it is gathered around roadblocks or inspecting convoys, a constant stream of radio announcements can be heard in the background, a rallying cry that passionately inspires Hutus to kill Tutsis by whatever means they can, be it machete, fire arms, or their own bare hands. What becomes so abundantly clear through these media messages is that there is no alternative for the Hutus to hear, no other broadcasts that may offer them a different perspective. Why is there not a single varying voice to help quell the storm and inspire reason over violence? Why is there only silence from others within Rwanda or those outside who have a voice?
While Augustin is traveling through Kigali desperately trying to find a safe haven we are shown the journey of Martine, a teacher at the Catholic school where Augustin's daughter, Anne-Marie, goes to school. Martine’s journey in the film serves to display the struggles of those put face to face with guns and the brutal aftermath of that meeting. As Martine travels, with Anne-Marie and another student from the school, the depth and breadth of the killings, and the desperation of those wishing to survive, is shown with striking clarity. As they drag their broken, beaten bodies through the dirt it is impossible to put yourself in their shoes. As they seek refuge in a swamp littered with dead bodies you can’t help but wonder what you would be willing to do to survive. What would you be capable of if the only choices you had ranged from a violent death to sleeping in a swamp filled with the dead?
As events are unfolding in Rwanda the film moves to Washington, D.C. to show the US government response to the crisis in Rwanda. As the Department of State, intelligence agencies, and the armed forces discuss the escalating conflict they remain unwilling to get involved. International politics, law, and recent events dictate the level of action (or inaction) the US is willing to commit itself to. In an interesting exchange, the Assistant Secretary of State threatens the Rwandan Army leader with “consequences” if he does not end the killings, to which he calmly replies, “Rwanda has no oil, we have no minerals, we have nothing you want”, concluding that the US has no interest in getting involved in a situation in Rwanda. This aspect of US foreign policy seems to be a recurring theme in recent history and you can’t help but wonder what might have happened if the US had made more of an effort to get involved. While the film only highlights the inaction of the US government, it is important to remember that countless other nations failed to intervene and end the conflict as well. What needed to happen for the international community to get involved? Was Rwanda, a small country in the heart of Africa, too tiny a place for anyone to care about?
At the end of the film an on-screen message tells you that as of 2004 only roughly 20 people had been sentenced by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. As this fact fades from the screen, the one question, above all other questions, which consumes your thoughts and is sure to linger with you long after the credits have ended, so graphically displayed by the film on the inter-family level, inter-tribe level, and international level, is this: can trials and tribunals set up to hold people accountable for their crimes make up for the silence and inaction that allowed this tragedy to be carried out in the first place?
Elliot Waring worked as a media production professional before becoming an editor at the University for Peace.