The final film I saw at this year's Chicago International Film Festival was also among the best: a Rwanda docume- hey, come back!
Seriously My Neighbor, My Killer is not what you'd think of when you hear the phrase "Rwanda documentary", which already begs the question; being that you are more likely than not an American, and certainly a fluent speaker of English, the odds are that you think of nothing when you hear the phrase "Rwanda documentary". I do not try to smear anyone when I say this; I saw the film in the fest guide, thought, "ew, depressing, no way", and moved on, and it was only a terrifically passionate entreaty from Nick Davis that got me to change my mind. For this I owe him a debt that will not be readily paid back.
The film was directed by Anne Aghion, who has spent the last ten years in Rwanda, recording various elements of that country's attempt to rebuild itself after the powerfully destructive genocide that made it the hushed terror of the world for a few brutal months in the spring and summer of 1994. My Neighbor, My Killer, her fourth documentary made in that period, is the culmination of her studies in that place; a film that in 80 deeply suggestive minutes paints a portrait in miniature of the long, painful, and sometimes acrimonious process by which a society re-connects after the unthinkable evil at the heart of the genocide: it was not an army of faceless goons butchering the defenseless Tutsis by the thousands and tens of thousands, but indeed next door neighbors and trusted friends and even extended family. The men wielding the clubs and machetes were no strangers but people from everyday life, making their casual atrocities all the more impossible to comprehend, and leading to a nationwide crisis when, in the first half of the 2000s, the Rwandan government initiated a plan to re-introduce the accused génocidaires into the villages that they had done so much to dismember only a handful of years earlier.
This is where My Neighbor, My Killer takes up: in a small mountain town, in 2001, at the very start of this campaign. Through the eyes of these villagers, Aghion considers each step of years-long process, from the first announcements that the imprisoned will all be tried by gacaca courts, a local system in which the prosecutors, defense, judges, and juries are all taken from the local community, to try the members of that local community; to the release in 2004 of several thousand prisoners, who make their way back home to be tried under this system; to the trials held in 2006 and 2007 by "her" villagers, of a couple men who in very different ways embody the the gacaca process, which in the film is not presented as a strictly legal affair, of blindly weighing evidence and passing sentence based upon that. Rather, the method of the gacaca system is to give the killers an opportunity to be genuinely penitent, and to ask for forgiveness; and thereafter to encourage the survivors to offer forgiveness. The goal is thus the rehabilitation of Rwandan society, the men who performed the genocide being restored as a functioning component of their communities, just like it was before 1994.
That's really the question though, isn't it? Can it ever even come close to being like it was before 1994 for women who saw their infant children's heads crushed on the ground before them, old women who are now the last of their line, the tattered scraps of a village that witnessed a very nice, agreeable local boy turn to his neighbors of his whole life and chop them to pieces with a machete? Aghion does not have an answer for that; her mission with this film is to allow others to attempt to answer it for themselves. The long time-frame of the movie (over six years) allows her to track the evolution of their answers as the killings recede further into the past, and the idea of living with the killers becomes more and more routine; but it is not at all the case that everyone (or anyone!) in the community ends up feeling terribly happy about what amounts to a government mandate that they make up with the people who butchered their families.
And that, really, is about the extent of it: the film explains a situation that the overwhelming majority of Americans have no idea about, and gives the voiceless people who are affected by that situation - both the victims and the accused - a chance to express their feelings on the matter. It is not Aghion's right to editorialise or moralise or do anything other than document, for this is not her story (one of the interview subjects is good-naturedly aghast at "whites and their strange questions"). It's the story of a small Rwanda village, and it is an absolute good that My Neighbor, My Killer has allowed that story to be told to the world: it is a tremendously moving film, one of the most humane things I have seen all year, documentary or otherwise.
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