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In genocide's aftermath, a long test of endurance

January 29, 2006|Casey Dolan | Times Staff Writer

"I do what I can. I'm not very wonderful."

ODETTE MUKAKABERA, a member of the Rwandan national police force, who is studying to be a lawyer and is infected with HIV in the documentary "God Sleeps in Rwanda"

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SURVIVING the annihilation of a people is a great challenge to the existential self, a tug of war between the affirmation of life and the heavy burden of guilt and despair. Some would rather die than live with the memories.

The examples of 20th century genocide are well known -- the Russian peasantry under Stalin, the Jews under the Nazis, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Armenian genocide as conducted by the Turks. Less widely known is the white-hot nihilism of nearly a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu dead in 100 spring days of 1994 in Rwanda -- cut down in medieval fashion, by machete. Genocide in the blink of an eye, perpetrated by the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority.

By the time Hutu Interahamwe, the name given the ruthless militias, and refugees traversed the Congolese border in midsummer, escaping from a Tutsi rebel army intent on revenge, they left in their wake a nation so thoroughly traumatized that recovery seemed an impossibility.

This has been potent material for filmmakers in recent years, with "Frontline: The Ghosts of Rwanda"; the Canadian film "Shake Hands With the Devil," a portrait of U.N. peacekeeper Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire; and the feature films "Sometimes in April" and "Hotel Rwanda." Most tend to concentrate on the genocide itself; few examine the aftermath.

One slim 28-minute film, "God Sleeps in Rwanda," is seeking to do just that by focusing on five female survivors of the Rwandan massacres. Photojournalist and co-director Kimberlee Acquaro had done reports on Rwanda with her husband, investigative journalist Peter Landesman, for Mother Jones and the New York Times Magazine.

"I went to Rwanda on a Pew Fellowship [in 2001]," says Acquaro, a short, vibrant woman with a missionary's commitment. "My subject was women who were working together to rebuild their country. The women that I was focusing on had come back after the genocide."

She met Norah Bagarinkah, director of the program for the International Rescue Committee working with genocide survivors and victims of sexual violence. Bagarinkah became the film's translator, and through her Acquaro met the women.

"It became clear to me that it was the survivors whose [post-genocide] arc was the most dramatic. They came back. They [had] lost everything. And I was focusing on mainly rural women, many who didn't know how to read, who were now in positions of power."

Acquaro is speaking in a mid-Wilshire restaurant, joined by co-director Stacy Sherman, whose background was as a screenwriter. Sherman is tall, quiet and watchful. Neither touches lunch.

Sherman had read the magazine pieces and was impressed. "I wanted to make a film and said, 'Let's go.' Kimberlee grabbed her camera, and we literally booked our flight and went. So it was self-financed

"God Sleeps in Rwanda" is a film in which the grace notes fall in the silences. There is a rhythm between moments of motion and stillness, sound and silence, between the interviews and the ambient noise of the banana groves and wind-blown grass.

"Motion and stillness is what works in a poem," says Acquaro. "Lyrically, you have the ups and downs, the waves. That was important to us, to have that sensibility, because that was what we experienced there."

Much of the footage was shot on the fly.

"There was no sound person, no lights," says Sherman. "It's pulling up to these homes they live in and they don't know we're coming. They're doing what they're doing, taking care of their children or out getting water and ... 'Can we talk to you?' "

Rosario Dawson narrates the documentary, in which five women are featured; four are interviewed. There is an arc from interview to interview, moving from the most traumatized -- Severa Mukakinani, who was gang-raped so often that she lost count and whose seven children were killed in front of her -- to Joseline Mujawamariya, who, after her return to her village, became a civic leader, without much education, in charge of a road-building project that was completed during filming.

"We wanted that arc to be ... the arc of genocide and recovery," says Sherman. "In the same way that you go through tragedy all the way. Never is that tragedy completely gone. But you ... push to move forward and [achieve] a sense of hope."

Rebuilding Rwanda comes with an added burden, the most tragically pernicious of which is AIDS and the high number of HIV infections. Fifi Mukangoga, the second woman profiled, dies from AIDS/HIV infection contracted during repeated rapes. Antiretroviral drugs priced at less than $80 a month were prohibitively expensive to Mukangoga as well as the great majority of Rwandan women.

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