AMPAS in Africa, Part Three: Kigali and Rwanda

Arrivals terminal, Kigali airport.

“This isn’t quite what I expected,” says one member of our Academy team as we are walking across the tarmac toward the arrivals building at the Kigali, Rwanda airport. What we had expected was something akin to the claustrophobic confines of the Nairobi airport with its erratic computer check-in and dim, dirty lighting, a SNAFU default for any country struggling with a desperately overtaxed infrastructure. What we find here is a quiet, spacious, fresh scrubbed arrivals hall and a welcoming committee complete with a video crew from Rwanda Television—led by our soft-spoken host Eric Kabera.

Eric Kabera interview for Rwandan TV.

I had read that a legacy of the French/Belgian colonial tradition that survives in Rwanda is a near fetish attention to pride of civic, public space; we are to see this everywhere, from the tidiness of small sundries' kiosks, to the linen of even simple restaurants, to the well tended grounds of traffic roundabouts, even to the perfectly cultivated rows of potato plants in the fields above Musanze that lead right up to the stone wall perimeter of the Volcanoes Mountain Gorilla Preserve.

For my part, the word “Rwanda” evokes the memory of one thing above all else: the genocide that engulfed this tiny, land-locked, verdant country between early April to mid-July of 1994, the “One Hundred Days” of murder on an unimaginable scale, that left more than 850,000 Rwandans dead. The specter of this genocide is the great reality that continues to inform its people (inhabiting the souls of its surviving victims), even as Tutsis, Hutus, and Twas work to move beyond the apocalyptic events of seventeen years ago. The importance that Rwandans place on recognition of this time is so crucial to the week we are about to spend here in workshops and seminars with young filmmakers, that Eric has made a visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre our very first stop.

The word “genocide” does not appear in the Centre’s official name:

Nor does the intimate fountain and interlocking red tiled walkway leading to the main entrance hint at the mass graves of more than 230,000 people buried only a few steps away, down a walkway to the left.

Kigali Memorial Centre.

There are quiet gardens and trellises around the perimeter, with benches to sit on--- and to reflect on the cabinets of horrors inside.

It is not my intention here to discuss the Byzantine complexity of the genocide or to assay blame solely on a single ethnic group, but to point out that this time of trauma exerts an abiding presence on our week’s work. It informs discussions of culture, of the media, and certainly constitutes the underpinnings of many stories the young filmmakers present.

Eric Kabera gives us a tour of the offices of the Rwanda Film Festival, an umbrella organization for the Hillywood Film Festival, which goes on the road to Rwandan cities showing movies on its “giant inflatable screen.” It then moves on to Kigali as the Rwanda Film Festival, a weeklong series of screenings in hotels and public spaces during the last week of July. Since Rwanda has no commercial cinema multiplexes, these improvised venues constitute a cinematic movable feast.

At the end of the video above, a yellow-robed dancer spins around revealing an outline map of Africa. Rwanda is the small oval on her gown. In fact, Lake Victoria, on Rwanda’s eastern flange, occupies more than twice the surface area of the entire country. You might (barely) pick out Rwanda on the map below, surrounded by the much larger Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Burundi (also diminutive) and Tanzania.

Rwanda, on the equator, west of Lake Victoria.

On the floor of the church where we conduct classes the Hillywood banner is being assembled for screenings later in the week.

Banner for Hillywood Festival.

A short YouTube video gives glimpses of the screening installation as it moves around the country. Sponsor underwriting is a major source of support for all arts enterprises in Rwanda and we meet with genial representatives of many of them. The last full minute of this promo video (you may want to skip that part) thanks them all, including UNICEF.

The newest venture by Eric Kabera is the Kwetu Film Institute, a school to train students for Rwanda's embryonic movie industry. Eric’s plan is for the school’s construction to be sufficiently underway to host the opening night festivities for this year’s festival, as well as for many of the week’s screenings. He gives us a tour five days before the festival begins. A Saturday evening premiere here does not look too promising.

Kwetu (Home) Film Institute, July 19, 2001.

When finished, the building will house screening rooms, editing workstations, classrooms and offices under the banner of the newly formed Kwetu Film Institute. Eric dreams large.

A few days later we return from a trip to Ruhengeri (now called Musanze), home of Volcanoes National Park and habitat to Rwanda’s 400 plus remaining mountain gorillas, and Gisenyi, a tourist destination on Lake Kivu, a true stone’s throw from the still volatile Congo (DRC) border town of Goma.

Here is another photo of the Kwetu (Home in Swahili) construction site on July 18.

Here is how the entry appears when we return five days later on the evening of July 23 for the opening of the festival.

Kwetu Film Institute, July 23, 2011.

Admittedly, some of the raw brick walls are covered with black drapes and light bulbs dangle from temporary wiring. The floor is of barely dry poured concrete; plastic chairs are set up, flat screen video displays are scattered around the perimeter, and a stage is in place. In the center, one of the large, traveling, inflatable screens greets the magic hour early arrivals. Once underway under the night sky, the open air space seems a perfect setting in a country where the mean annual temperature doesn’t vary by more than about 15 degrees.

A film short titled Na WeWe opens the festival. It is a deeply ironic dark comedy about the Rwandan/Burundi genocide that received an Academy Award nomination this year in the theatrical short category. Carol and I had seen it at a January AMPAS nomination screening and had been deeply moved; however, a lightweight Woody Allen-esque comedy won the Oscar.

After the screening, the film’s writer Jean-Luc Pening is introduced. As he is helped onstage we realize that he is blind. He speaks with deep conviction about the making of the film; I hear people crying. The scenario for Na WeWe (You,Too) is based loosely on a crucial event in Pening’s life. The bio detail from the film’s website says:

August 1995... It is war in Burundi. Jean-Luc Pening, an agricultural engineer, leaves his plantation and crosses the path of a military patrol. Everything capsizes.

A man approaches and draws a gun, places it on his temple, and shoots point blank. The bullet tears through Jean-Luc’s head. When he wakes up, it is all black... He has forever lost his eyesight.

The Hutu-Tutsi conflict had also erupted to the south in Burundi, then continues in the Congo (DRC) after the end of the Rwandan civil war of 1994. But this evening here in Kigali is to be festive. It opens with Rwandan drummers and singers accompanying a company of lithe native dancers in gold and red costumes. They are the center of attention offstage during a break.

Earlier in the week the Academy teaching seminars had followed the structure of inter-disciplinary guidelines that were so key to the Nairobi workshop week. We now meet in Kigali in group sessions to discuss common issues and then splinter off for individual workshops. The Rwandan cinematographer, Christian Gakombe, who had also been in the Nairobi workshop discusses with production designer Wynn Thomas their design and lighting exercise from Great Master paintings. Later in the day, with the very limited resources available to us, Christian and I struggle to demonstrate some basic lighting techniques. We have two semi-industrial lights, a cat’s cradle of cables and plugs, and no light control grip or diffusion equipment. Such are the real-life conditions most of these emerging filmmakers confront as they struggle to present their stories to a cinema world not yet even aware of their existence.

The Hillywood Festival screenings are set for Musanze on the evening of July 19 on a dirt soccer pitch, and on the next evening in a lakeside park in Gisenyi. Both towns are in the northwestern part of Rwanda, close to the Ugandan and Congo borders. These towns were strongholds of the most right-wing Hutu Power elements and the civilian Interahamwe (“those who attack together”), a cadre of machete wielding young killers goaded by national hate radio during the genocide. The feature film Africa United, projected on the inflatable screen and with a DJ voiceover narration translated live into Kinyarwandan is to be the main film at both locales. Its upbeat story of  the roly-poly boy, Dudu, and his friends on an adventure to South Africa to be in the World Cup, seems to make the genocide fade into history, if only for this one evening.

In his monologue Swimming to Cambodia the late Spaulding Grey speaks of a “cloud of evil” that floats around the world like some existential miasma; it settles from time to time on places like Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Mao Zedong China, Pol Pot Cambodia, Milosevic Serbia—Rwanda. Millions of innocents are killed in the name of political ideology.

The pristine beaches of Gisenyi, a much lauded tourist destination on the eastern shore of Lake Kivu, would appear to be immune from this 20th century litany of horrors.

Its luxury hotels are, however, not much more than a good soccer kick’s distance from one of the ongoing hellholes of Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo town of Goma. It was here that many of the Rwandan Army genocidaires, the ragtag interahamwe killers, and the Hutu Power cadre sought refuge (with the overt aid of a French military force) when RPF forces under General Kagame, the current president of the country, drove them into exile after July 1994.

Our AMPAS group has come here for the Hillywood screening and for a free day that includes a boat ride on Lake Kivu, a ride that skirts at one point too close for comfort to the Congo shore. As we head out onto the lake, Eric speaks of the enormous bubble of methane gas beneath us; a drilling platform well and its underwater pipes feed fuel to several shore side companies including Primus Beer, Rwanda’s local brew. The lone platform looks like a totem to some post-steampunk Lego-land.

The gas bubble beneath is not a benign reservoir that can be counted on to safely fuel Gisenyi’s industry. Several similar lakes have experienced “limbic eruptions” that have gassed thousands of people in their sleep. Goma is also hard against the active volcano, Nyiragongo, which erupted in January 2002 sending molten lava into and destroying 40% of the city. The entire region, like its refugees, is a seething cauldron of unrest.

As our bus begins its return to Kigali we pass close to the DRC border at Goma. The wide paved road and recently cobbled sidewalks at Gisenyi’s border belie the Dantean Inferno that sits at the other side of the gate. A Primus beer billboard is the sole “Welcome” sign to any Congolese crossing over into Gisenyi.

Gisenyi street scene at border of Goma, DRC.

We are asked not to take pictures of the Congo side—the mean, narrow, dirt alleys just beyond the border gate breathe poverty, oppression, evil. We all feel it and our Kigali driver, Omar Kayinamura, looks uneasy. Just beyond is a clogged warren of shacks and 18-wheelers waiting in a long stream to seep into Gisenyi. It is not hard to picture a 21st century Conradian “Heart of Darkness.”

The ongoing wars in this area of the Congo have drawn in military forces from nearly a dozen African countries. Alliances shift as governments and armies topple. And since the Rwandan genocide, five and a half million people, overwhelmingly civilians, have died in these contested mountains as landlocked Rwanda seeks border stability. There seems to be no exit from the murderous labyrinth of the DRC. Only the mountain gorillas easily cross the fractious borders of the Virunga (DRC) and Volcanoes (Rwan.) National Parks, oblivious of the human desperation around them. Their forage of bamboo, wild celery and gallium vines struggles to keep a tenuous hold on these shifting volcanic cliffs. But the Rwandan people also endure.

Mount Sabyinyo, a gateway to the Mountain Gorillas.

Next week: AMPAS in Africa, Part 4.  I’ll conclude these essays on the East African Outreach with a visit to—yes, the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.

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