Rwandan filmmakers paying tribute to a dark past

Saturday April 20 2019

Joel Karekezi film The Pardon Imbabazi

A scene from Joel Karekezi’s film 'The Pardon' (Imbabazi). PHOTO | COURTESY 

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Over the past 25 years as Rwanda has made the commemoration of the Genocide Against the Tutsi a national event for reflection, a home-grown film industry also evolved around it not only to tell genocide stories from the point of view of those who lived through it but also those who still suffer from its effects, and above all, to capture the tragic history of the country for posterity.

And the films cover a diverse range of issues from romance to mental issues, family and even religion.

The most famous film on the genocide, Hotel Rwanda, is a 2004 Hollywood production directed by Terry George for United Artists and Lions Gate Films.

It was shot on location in Kigali, Britain and South Africa. Based on the story of hotelier Paul Rusesabagina, it is the most acclaimed film on the genocide and one that elicited much controversy on the authenticity of Rusesabagina's version of events.

Nevertheless the film was nominated for multiple awards, including Academy Award for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay; and won a number of awards including those from the Berlin and Toronto International Film Festivals.

Besides Hotel Rwanda other acclaimed films are 100 Days (2001), Sometimes in April and Shooting Dogs (2005), A Sunday in Kigali (2006), Shake Hands with the Devil (2007), Munyurangabo (2007), Kinyarwanda (2011) and Beyond Right and Wrong (2012).


This is by no means a full list. Several other films and documentaries have been made and some have won international awards. But the most important are those made by Rwandans for Rwandans.

These films and the people behind them may not be Hollywood-backed but they have managed to do what every historian lives for: Archiving our daily lives.

In the process, film has emerged as a tool for painting a clearer image of the events of 25 years ago.

Today, anyone interested in films based on the Genocide against the Tutsi does not have to rely on Hollywood productions, as a growing number of Rwandan filmmakers have taken up the mantle and are producing films that reflect on the tragedy, and also on the country's efforts at unity and reconciliation.

Although some are little known in Rwanda, most of these films have travelled beyond the regional borders and captured international audiences and won awards.

As this year's Kwibuka used drama and film to mark the commemoration, we feature the filmmakers who have dedicated their lives to paying tribute to the country's dark past.

  • Eric Kabera

This award-winning film maker is credited for having opened the doors for the Rwandan film industry to tell its own stories.

His films spearheaded debate about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

As a director, producer and writer, he is behind most prominent films such as 100 Days (2001), Gardiens de la Mémoire (2004), Scars of my Days (2006), Iseta and Behind the Roadblock.

In 2014, Kabera produced Intore, a documentary film that paints hope as an important tool among Rwandans.

The 49-year old uses music and dance as an element in Rwanda’s unity and reconciliation among youth today.

  • Philbert Aimé Mbabazi

Going by the name Hutsi (a fusion of Hutu and Tutsi), Mbabazi's short fiction film Akaliza Keza, has earned him much acclaim.

He chose to highlight the effects of the tragedy through a fictional story of a 29-year old woman, Akaliza, who contemplates aborting the child she's expecting, dumps her fiancé and cancels wedding plans after learning that the man she loves is Hutu.

Akaliza reasons that having lost her father in the genocide, and her only brother suffering from brain damage inflicted by her father's killers, she cannot marry or love a Hutu knowing what she does. The story touches the raw nerve of forgiveness and building bridges.

  • Samuel Ishimwe Karemangingo

He has managed to zero in on post-genocide family relations with his 2018 film Imfura.

Karemangingo, 28, explores the littletalked about family issues around genocide. The story is set in the countryside and targets young adult survivors.

It is a documentary-fiction film on the story of Moses Mwizerwa, who plays Gisa, a young genocide survivor, who during his university break, visits his ancestral home where he is welcomed by the villagers, most of whom are elderly.

His elder brother spends most of his time in church in prayers, while he visits with his aunt and learns that his parents owned a house built on the family land, but some of the relatives will not let Gesa inherit it because they are claiming the land on which it has been built. A family conflict ensues.

The film is Rwanda’s first production to be entered in the annual Berlinale Shorts competition, held in Berlin, Germany.

It won and was premiered at the 2018 Luxor African Film Festival in Egypt, where it won the Bronze Mask of Tutankhamun Award for Best Artistic Achievement in the short film category.

Recently, it was screened and also won the Best Rwandan Short Film Award at the 2018 Mashariki African Film Festival in Kigali.

Last year, Karemangingo produced Crossing Lines, on the personal struggles of Kayihura, a young doctor and genocide survivor who locks himself in his house during the annual commemoration, haunted by the painful memories of the tragedy.

On opening his door one morning, he finds a stranger bleeding to death following a suicide attempt. He offers medical attention, but after finding out the reason behind the suicide attempt, things take a turn for the worse.

The 28-minutes long film has also been screened and won awards at Africa In Motion, Rwanda Film Festival and le Festival International du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel du Burundi.

It was also also selected for the 2017 Durban International Film Festival, and won Best East African short film and at 2017 Mashariki African Film Festival as Best National short film.

  • Ishmael Ntihabose

This producer's much acclaimed film, Kinyarwanda, focuses on the role of religion.

The role of the Catholic Church in the genocide is still a matter of discussion and this film portrays how Muslims, almost forgotten in the narrative, rescued and protected survivors during the dark days. It juxtaposes this with a story of a priest struggling with his faith in front of desperate believers.

  • Kivu Ruhorahoza

His film Grey Matter, made 2010, takes us into the emotional turmoil of the genocide aftermath. It tackles post traumatic stress disorder, which Yvan, a survivor goes through.

He is only comfortable wearing a motorcycle helmet and won’t set foot out of his house for fear of being attacked brutally as happened to his parents.

It was featured at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where it won Best Male actor and Jury Special Mention for Best Emerging Film Director Award.

It also received the Ecumenical Jury Special Mention at the Warsaw International Film Festival for Best Director Award. It was later sold to Global Film Initiative, a distributor in San Francisco, US.

  • Yves Montand Niyongabo

He quit law studies to make films. His first work was Munyurangabo (2007) followed by his 2014 film The Invincible , which tells a story of Jean Paul Samputu, the Rwandan musician and Vincent, a neighbour who killed Samputu’s parents and siblings.

Samputu’s heart is not free though; that he spearheads the act for forgiveness by embarking onto a journey of approaching and reconciling with Vincent, after many years of imprisonment. To him as a victim, this act pays off, and frees his heart.

  • Joel Karekezi

His 2009 film, Imbabazi (The Pardon), revolves around the power of friendship between Manzi and Karemera, which is torn apart by genocide.

Manzi’s family won’t entertain what he calls “friendship,’’ and so he disowns his friend and he joins others in hunting down and killing Karemera’s family.

Karemera narrowly escapes with his life. Manzi is eventually arrested, tried, jailed for 15 years and released. He wants a reconciliation with his friend.

Imbabazi won the Golden Impala Award at the Amakula Film Festival in Uganda and the 2010 award for Best Short Film at the Silicon Valley African Film Festival.