Monday, May 23, 2005

Spinning Rwanda: Hollywood's Trilogy of Gloom

I don't think there's a one of you out there—of those who know me—who doesn't know my views on the Rwanda genocides and the reaction of the West, particularly the United States. A decade or so after the fact, one can hardly turn around without bumping into yet another article or tv program or book or big-screen commentary on the events of 1994, and every time, I just get more and more disgusted and saddened by the whole affair. Never mind that at the time, I don't think I shed even one tear. It wasn't enough of a news story to do so, nestled between whatever else was going on that year.

In Sometimes in April, Haitian director Raoul Peck makes devestating use of news report soundbytes, including one of Kurt Cobain's suicide with a visual of business people shuffling onto the subway to get home while people were being hacked to death across the globe. I'll never forget Cobain's untimely death because I was at the mall of all places when I heard; the stores were overrun with ravenous consumer-zombie teens a flutter with their own ignorance of the reality of death. Though I remember that scene clearly, I have zero recollection of how and when I first heard about what eventually became the deaths of 800,000 for whom "untimely" is too much the understatement, and my own and my country's own chosen ignorance is a heavy burden.

The horror stems from many factors, not the least of which being that my generation slept on another Holocaust. That the hands of the United Nations were tied still makes little sense to me. But the real hook in my throat came after reading Howard French's A Continent for the Taking. I first learned from French's book that the U.S. refused even to jam the radio broadcasts that the Hutu extremists used to stir the masses to irrevocable vengence against family and friends and community members. The radio personalities so efficiently and effectively dehumanized the enemy, that the exterminators were, in fact, targeting cockroaches, not people. Radio broadcasts were also used to help direct the army, and if the President Clinton didn't want to put U.S soldiers on the ground, the least we could have done was block the transmissions. THE LEAST.

A character in Peck's film suggests something that's always rattled around in my head, i.e. the West doesn't care about a bunch of blacks and certainly not Africans. Besides, unlike Iraq, Rwanda doesn't have shit. At least not anything that the U.S. wants. That was my mindset going into the theatre to see Hotel Rwanda this past winter. It's a brilliant film that left the entire theatre with nothing to say as the audience poured out, homeward bound for an evening of deep introspection at home, trying not to have nightmares. But Six and Vani and I agreed that we were glad we went to see it. It was important.

Then last week Vani gave me Sometimes in April. Another take, another perspective, another brilliantly acted film, another heartbreaker. I told Six to rent it. We all had another bad night but agreed that we were glad the film was made. It was important.

The two films go together pretty well. Despite being produced independent of one another, to see one without seeing the other is to cheat yourself. Hotel Rwanda is sort of the John the Baptist of the two films; see it first. Then, when you've had time to absorb it all and the luxury to recuperate, spend a couple hours with Sometimes in April. If you do, you'll be mad as hornets, frothing at the mouth about Bill Clinton, among others, and how we didn't want another Somalia. Then watch Black Hawk Down.

A Ridley Scott film based on journalist Mark Bowden's book, you can count on Black Hawk Down to be a stark rendering of a brutal battle that took place in Somalia two years prior to the Rwanda mass murders. The situations, of course, were totally different, but as I watched the final piece of an unintentional tryptich, something surprising happened. I found myself starting to understand—just a tiny bit—why the U.S. might have been so uneager to do the right thing.

Though the African people depicted in Black Hawk Down were the animalistic, inhuman creatures one rightly fears and loathes, there were other Somalians pictured near the end. The ones whom the U.S. ostensibly went to help. Innocent civilians with nothing, nothing to lose, nothing to win, no thing. It reminded me that sometimes my government has a humanitarian agenda. It also added to my perspective: I see now why when the U.S. took on the Somali warlords, the deaths of 300,000 civilians was easy to label genocide and why, when more than twice that number died brutally a couple years later in another country, the West ran down the time clock by debating the difference between "genocide"—which necessitates ballsy action—and "acts of genocide," which is a neutered nuance one can filibuster 'til the cows have come home and withered into beef jerky.

I'll never think letting all those people get slaughtered was the right thing to do, but I've purposely avoided talking about the plot of these films or the history behind the real-life events because if you're reading this, I really want you to see these fictionalizations of something that seems too horrific to have been real. I hope, in so doing, that you'll tackle the Rubik's cube of it all in your mind with the awareness that the reasons our species can be so despicable is a puzzle that's unsolvable. But it's precisely because the little squares interconnect in ways we can't imagine that we have to make the effort of solving the impossible.

And I don't wanna hear any of that "never again" crap. History is too much an endless loop for me to ever believe in that, but I write this to suggest we've made real progress when pop culture does the job of presenting stories—even sans hardcore analysis or lectures from professors in horn-rimmed glasses or reams of data spewed from the largest hard drives and fastest processors—that have to be told, especially when the news media can't do the job or doesn't do it adequately or does it but we tune into something else. Besides too much of that can make one's mind shut down, but art, hopefully, will open the heart. Even for tears.


Anonymous Brent McKee said...

I heartily recommend the book Shake Hands With The Devil by the Canadian General Romeo Dallaire for anyone who wants a serious examination about UN and US policy on Rwanda and the efects as it was seen
by the guy who was in charge on the ground when the crap hit the fan.

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Quack Corleone said...

Not to be rude, but I'd recommend against Dallaire's book and his hero-posturing.

Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda is a good alternative.

1:20 PM  
Anonymous dean said...

Gourevitch's book is definitely good but I would disagree with your assessment of Dallaire as "hero-posturing". I wouldn't call Shake Hands with the Devil a brilliant read (Dallaire uses far to many obscure UN acronyms for my taste) but it does a good job of capturing the essence and hopelessness of the situation. Given the lack of support for the mission, Dallaire did about as well as anyone could, to his own cost.

1:22 PM  
Anonymous aaman said...

The ending of Sometimes in April wonders if after the next genocide it will take another 10 years for HBO films and the like to be made before people realize, yet again

Great opinion,mpho

1:33 PM  
Blogger mpho said...

thanks, aaman. While I appreciate the reading suggestions (I haven't read any of them yet), my rambling sort of point was that I'd rather have Hollywood tackle these historical moments long after the fact than not at all because if once-current events don't make it into what we think of as entertainment venues, a huge cross-section of the population will never learn anything, even a distilled, watered down version of events. I'm sure more people have seen the box office smash Hotel Rwanda than the total number who have read Shake Hands With The Devil, Gourevitch's book, and Bowden's book added together. I mean here I am, acting like I know it all, and I haven't even read their books. It's easier to get someone to commit to 2 1/2 hours of voyeuristic activity than to push a book on somebody, so why not make the most of it?

by the way, French's book, A Continenet for the Taking," is subtitled "The Tragedy and Hope of Africa." While it's not specific to Rwanda, French talks a lot of things that happened all over Africa during the 1990s. Foreign Affairs has a great review at which is different from the link I chose in my blog post. If only, someone would movies of all it all. ; )

2:31 PM  
Blogger Minega said...

Great post. I'm Rwandan so it's always good to see something like this.
And I agree with Dean- both books are important in their own way, although Gourevitch's will probably never be topped.

9:32 AM  
Anonymous rl said...

totally agree with your rwanda comments. i saw "hotel" and was devastated. yeah, i knew what had happened - had read articles & commentary. but seeing it dramatazied like that made such an impact. yep, the whole theater was sobbing, rightly so. will have to check out the other film you mentioned, when i can handle it...

9:16 AM  

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