With “Birds Are Singing in Kigali,” Polish directors Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze not only draw parallels between the horrors of war in Rwanda and Poland, but also explore the often violent natural order of the world. Speaking to Variety, Kos-Krauze discusses the challenging project, which she finished by herself after the death of her husband, as well as the many positive aspects of shooting in Rwanda. The film screens in competition at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
What inspired you and your husband to tell this particular story about Rwanda?
We come from Poland, a country on whose land the Holocaust was carried out and where the consequences of the genocide are visible until this very day. We feel obliged to return to the basic questions as to why it happened and how to live afterwards. It is why for us the memory and awareness of social mechanisms of a spiral of violence are so important.
Genocide was never a spontaneous act in the history of civilizations. The society needs to be first prepared for what is about to ensue and this process usually starts with words. This is one of the reasons why the current situation in Poland and Hungary is so frightening. Recently my assistant conducted research on the German, French and Polish newspapers in the 1930s. While reading the excerpts, I was struck by their stylistic similarity to the Polish press now – the same headlines, the same language and phrases. It is no longer a cabaret, but a serious problem.
Do you have special or personal ties to Rwanda or East Africa?
We lived in Africa for several years. When we first went there, we didn’t think these would be the most difficult years for us personally – of illness, passing, mourning, but also hope. Most of the time we spent in South Africa, where Krzysztof was undergoing oncological treatment, but we also worked and observed the society so differently from what we know – a society hurt by apartheid, full of unimaginable violence, racial tensions, striking economic disparities, but also, in my view, in many areas a society much more tolerant than ours.
Rwanda was for us at first a traumatic experience as I spent many weeks at exhumations and memorial sites. Everyone there is either a victim, a killer, or a descendant of a perpetrator. We instantly knew these experiences would eventually find a way onto the screen. After having hundreds of conversations with people living in Rwanda, we realized we would like to do a symbolic film about the trauma of genocide. To think about what it means to forgive, to reconcile, to remember, and to mourn.
Did you film on location in Rwanda or East Africa? If so, what kinds of challenges did you face shooting in the region?
The shooting took place in Rwanda and Kenya, and I founded the film production company in Rwanda. Personally, I liked working in Rwanda more than in Poland, mostly because of the involvement and generosity of the Rwandans. Their governmental policy supports investors and they treated my film as every other investment project. They allowed free shooting at memorial sites and national parks, and – what is the most important – they secured the screenplay’s acceptance by the censorship office. They were very kind and pragmatic.
There is a one-stop shop policy in Rwanda, which means that all of the official procedures can be finalized at one place. They instantly proceeded with banking accounts and one can even negotiate taxes, depending on a scale of business. Their law permits individually set terms for conducting business, which are calculated based on the level of investment.
Generally, the rhythm of work in Rwanda is different as we sometimes shot one instead of the six scenes that we had planned, but everything that was promised was also delivered. I’m very, very grateful. In Kenya, we shot mostly the scenes with vultures as there are very few of them in Rwanda.
How difficult was it for you to continue the production following the death of your husband?
I don’t know why I wouldn’t have finished the film. I lived and worked with Krzysztof for 20 years, and he knew that if I begin anything, I also end it. We were fully aware that the chances of finishing this film together were slim. Krzysztof was on set for the first six days of shooting and he was fighting heroically, entirely committed to work. He knew that I’m strong and that the film would be made. He knew he could count on me. Afterwards we had all together the next 64 shooting days in Poland and Africa. The film got public funding, I got the screenplay rights back, set up the production companies in Poland and Rwanda. There was no other option. Anyway, why wouldn’t the film have been made? That someone is ill, is dying, or mourning does not stop the world…
What, if any, is the significance of Anna’s profession as an ornithologist and the role of birds and vultures in the story?
The birds seemed for us the best metaphor for the natural order of the world that we wanted to present in the film. A cycle of birth, growth, decline and death. In the 1980s, in equatorial Africa, and also in India, the population of vultures was rapidly declining to the extent of complete extinction. No one knew the reasons. There were many hypotheses explaining this phenomenon, like pesticides, smog, or airplanes, but finally it was proven that the cause was an antibiotic, Diclofenac, fed to cattle for rheumatism. It was widely in use in India, and as Hindus run the majority of pharmacies in Africa, they administered this medicine to African cattle. The antibiotic accumulated in cattle’s liver and was later damaging the vultures’ kidneys. The research was conducted in Rwanda among other African countries.
Suddenly, the genocide happened in Rwanda – during the hundred days of 1994 almost a million people died. Within a few days, the earlier engendered population of vultures rebuilt itself. Rwanda became one of the biggest feeding grounds in history. Once the predators cleaned over the human remains, they killed all the singing birds. Philip Gourevich wrote one of the best books on the Rwandan genocide, entitled “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda.” He writes that when he came there in 1995 he was welcomed by a piercing silence, in a metaphorical and literal sense. He realized there were no singing birds. The birds returned only later, after a few years, and this return completed the cycle.
Cruelty and fate at the same time. In Rwanda, one starts to understand that human, individual drama and suffering are part of a bigger plan.
In what ways do you think this film could create greater awareness in Poland of the current refugee crisis in Europe and Africa?
I have to admit I don’t know what can be currently done in Poland. I spent the last two years out of the country, and earlier we were living in Africa for almost six years. These were very interesting, creative, but also difficult years. I understand Europe and my own country less and less, although I closely observe what is happening.
In the 1960s, Ryszard Kapuscinski prophetically wrote that the 21st century would be a century of the “other”. Europe is changing shape, color, and its ethnic structure. There is no need for hysteria, we just need to prepare ourselves for this encounter: historically, intellectually, procedurally and emotionally. The “other” does not mean “stranger” and “dangerous”. The question is to perceive “other” as a suffering man, a man looking for help, interesting, a man who can give me something. This is a huge task for politicians, teachers, and social and spiritual leaders.
Europe has to come to terms with its colonial heritage, the exploitation of people and lands, and the compulsory conversion by the Church. I don’t see anything strange about it; what seems strange is rather someone who doesn’t understand these relations. Someone who didn’t see the immigrant camps, the war and its after-effects, cannot know that nothing and no one will stop people in despair. This process is irreversible.
Do you have a next project in development?
My next project will be about the harm of children and collusion of silence, and all this in the name of a love of art. It will be based on facts, but will go beyond their reproduction toward a metaphorical picture of a painful social reality. It will be a film on motherhood, responsibility, hypocrisy and group pressure, in which Polish baroque music will be one of its stars.