Posted by: sean | June 13, 2005

Far from Rwanda

Last month I saw Darwin’s Nightmare, a documentary film by an Austrian filmmaker about the economy based on the alien Nile Perch , which was introduced into Lake Victoria, and which has had devastating effects on the lake’s ecosystem and local food supply. It’s a fine documentary that explores first world complicity in a small Tanzanian fishing town’s misery. Although there is a striking lack of adolescents shown in the film, we see a gamut of people, from hungry street children and prostitutes to Indian-Tanzanian factory owners and Ukrainian pilots, whose planes alternately bring food aid and arms to Tanzania, but always leave full of fish.

So I was excited to see Sauper’s 45 minute film on 100,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees roaming the jungles of the Congo in 1997, Kisangani Diary, especially since the director was going to be there to answer questions after the film. I am sad to say, however, that I was very disappointed. While cinematographically, the film was good, there was a certain lack of context that bothered me. This, coupled with the heavy handedness of filming almost exclusively children, made the film seem somehow slightly dishonest.

The viewer is told that these Hutu Rwandans have been roaming the Congolese jungle since they left Rwanda after the 1994 Tutsi genocide, only to be attacked for being of the “wrong tribe” by numerous forces vying for power, especially Kabila’s rebel ADFL soldiers, who were soon to topple Mobutu’s kleptocracy. Like in Darwin’s Nightmare, there is a striking lack of adolescents and adults in the film; the viewer sees suffering children and little else.

While in Darwin’s Nightmare, it’s understandable why he left out the adolescents on the street. The film is already fairly complex on a moral level, and it’s not clear if seeing hungry teenage boys who might just murder you helps get the bigger picture of what’s going on in this part of Tanzania. However, in Kisigani Diary the choice is particularly problematic. We never see the adults, and he never asks them why they are still in the Congo. Given the amount of popular Hutu participation in the 1994 genocide, there is a good chance that among these refugees there are at least some, if not many, murderers. But this is not explored at all by Sauper, and when I asked him after the projection who these people were, if any of them were guilty of genocide, the only response he could give me was he didn’t think so, because the génocidaires would have left with their guns to get food.

Nevermind the fact that the Rwandan genocide was largely performed with machetes, hammers, hoes, axes and clubs. Furthermore, given the popular participation of the Hutu population, it is probable that there were more than a few people guilty of genocide among the off screen adults in Sauper’s film. Furthermore, Sauper fails to mention that many of the Hutu refugee camps in Zaire were still run by former Rwandan military and militia leaders, the same people who massacred nearly 1 million Tutsis. Neither does he mention that many of these camps launched raids into Rwanda and attempted, with the support of Mobutu, to massacre the Zairean Banyamulenge Tutsis.

So in the end, the viewer sees a group of defenceless starving children, longing to return to Rwanda. The images might be from Darfur or northern Ethiopia. There is no moral complexity or context in which to frame the miserable suffering of these people roaming the jungle while starving to death and being shot at.

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