<blockquote>Back to hell<p align=justify>When Raoul Peck decided to make a film about the Rwandan genocide, he knew there was only one place he could do it. He tells all to Geoffrey Macnab.
Tuesday March 15, 2005
The monster, says Raoul Peck, doesn't come from nowhere. It is slowly conjured into being, and just about everybody is complicit in its creation. "You look aside the first time when someone is slapped in public. You don't say anything. The next day, they kill him in front of you and you don't say anything. Then, on the third day, they can come and take your wife and rape your wife. And then it's too late for you to do anything. That is how the monster arrives. It starts with little things."
The director - and former Haitian minister of culture - is explaining why he wanted to revisit the Rwandan genocide in his ne
w film, Sometimes in April. It's one of three major new movies inspired by the horrific events of April 1994, when an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were massacred by their countrymen as the world stood idly by. Peck is philosophical about the rival projects - the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda and Michael Caton-Jones's yet-to-be-released Shooting Dogs - all coming along at once. From his point of view, the more that can be done to jolt memories about the genocide, the better. Besides, he says, his film is likely to reach a far greater initial audience than the other two features. It was financed by US cable channel HBO and will shown on TV later this year. "Thirty-five million people are going to see this film. I think its impact will be huge."
None the less, Peck realised that a dry, factual account of the genocide would struggle to find an audience. "Drama enables people to get into a subject emotionally in a quicker and deeper way," he says. So his film focuses on the experiences of a single family. Th
e story begins in April 2004 as Augustin (Idris Elba), a schoolteacher, prepares to visit his estranged brother, Honoré, a one-time radio journalist now on trial for his part in inciting genocide with his inflammatory broadcasts. Augustin, we discover, was a moderate Hutu, but his wife was a Tutsi. They were split apart in tragic circumstances during the genocide.
What Peck's film does supremely well is to show how, during the genocide, violence became normalised. Elderly men say goodbye to their wives, pick up their machetes and march out to murder their former neighbours as if they're simply off on a day's work. Teenagers sit swigging beer at roadblocks, ready to kill anyone who doesn't have the right papers. Soldiers roam from house to house, blithely shooting dead any Tutsis they encounter. In sci-fi films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Dawn of the Dead, it's a cliche to have sleepy communities suddenly turn on their own inhabitants. In Rwanda, this happened for real.
"I tried t
o be as authentic as possible in making my films, even if it is under the label of fiction," Peck says. Lines of dialogue, he points out, are taken directly from witnesses' testimony at the International Criminal Tribunal. The film was shot on location in Rwanda, in the places where massacres took place. Every incident, however melodramatic or far-fetched, has its corollary in actual events. Wounded Tutsis really did hide out in the muddy marshes. The girls at the church school Sainte Marie, some Hutu, some Tutsis, really did make a stand against the militia, choosing to die together rather than be split apart. In today's Rwanda, the relatives of victims really do live side by side with the killers from a decade ago. "It's just the reality. What can you do? Are you going to kill your neighbour now because he killed your family?" Peck asks. "People are tired. People want some rest ... you can't be living with eternal anger in you. Life must go on."
Now 51, Peck was born in Port-au-Prince in Haiti, b
ut spent many years in the Republic of Congo, where his parents fled to escape the Duvalier dictatorship in the early 1960s. Though he was an outsider, he says the Rwandans welcomed him. His previous film, Lumumba (a fictionalised account of the final year of the life of the assassinated prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo), had been well received in the country and the local people trusted his motives. "I had a moral contract with them," he says of his relationship with the Rwandans. "They knew that I wouldn't catch a story, run with it and never come back."
Peck begins Sometimes in April with eerie archive footage shot by Belgian colonialists. A white potentate in full uniform is shown meeting a cowed and suspicious tribal leader. The dignitary offers his hand but the leader is too baffled and terrified to take it. "This is one of the strange films that the Belgians made about the first colonialists who came to Rwanda," Peck says. "It was like one of those old Nazi propaganda piec
es on the Jewish people, with the depiction of the local people set against the majesty of the conquerors."
He included this overture to show his audience in a shorthand way that the fissures in Rwandan society first opened up during the colonial era. It was the Belgians who installed the rigid system of racial classification that distinguished between the Tutsis and the Hutus. Peck also made frequent use of western TV footage shot during the genocide. (As he makes clear, the western media in the spring of 1994 was far more preoccupied with the suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain.)
The film-maker becomes visibly irritated when I ask if Debra Winger's character in the film, the US lawyer Prudence Bushnell agitating for UN and US intervention to stop the massacre, was included at the behest of HBO, so there would be at least one sympathetic westerner with whom US audiences could identify. "No, no, no, no, not at all," he protests. "I think the American public and studios would have been happy if I
had excluded that part, so it would just have been a black story in Africa. For me to be able to show the inaction of the American administration makes it only worse." Nor is he apologetic about shooting in English. "We had to switch to English for financial reasons, but what is more important than the language is the authenticity."
Back in January, Peck held the world premiere of Sometimes in April in a huge stadium in the Rwandan capital of Kigali in front of an audience of thousands of people, many of whom had lost relatives during the massacre. "I could only imagine making this film if the Rwandans were the first to see it. Whatever the critics say doesn't matter to me. The only people whose judgment I would accept are the Rwandan people."
[size=75]· Sometimes in April screens at the Ritzy Cinema, London SW2 (0870 7550 062), on Thursday as part of the Human Rights Watch film festival. Details: http://hrw.org/iff/2005/london/[/size