One of the darkest and most under-reported tragedies of the 20th century gets near-definitive treatment in “Rwanda: History of a Genocide.” At once coolly dispassionate and emotionally overpowering, this engrossing French docu narrates in straightforward fashion events leading up to the April 1994 massacres, then delivers a searing blow-by-blow indictment of the French government for allowing the slaughter to continue unabated; the bitterness and intensity of its charges will leave viewers stunned. Having aired on Gallic television, pic is worthy of more broadcast and festival attention, and could make a superior companion-piece to “Hotel Rwanda.”
From the arresting opening sentence — “Their crime was being born Tutsi” — it’s clear directors Raphael Glucksmann, Pierre Mezerette and David Hazan are intent on building a case. Rather than allow their emotions to flood the screen unchecked, the filmmakers have honed, controlled and carefully directed their horror and outrage in ways both devastating and intellectually constructive.
From the start, “Rwanda” implicates Western imperialism for its role in inflaming and encouraging the massacres, persuasively arguing that what was strictly a class divide between the nation’s Hutu majority and elite Tutsi minority became a racial conflict only after German colonists arrived on the scene in the late 1800s. The narrative sweeps across 100 years of history to the early 1990s, with the Hutus (or “true Rwandans,” as they call themselves) locked in a civil war with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a paramilitary org of exiled Tutsis attacking from the outside.
Pic’s most impressive achievement is the clarity with which it maps out the frenzied yet disquietingly robotic machinery of the genocide, from the birth of the extremist group Hutu Power to the chilling radio messages, eerily played over placid nighttime shots of the Rwandan capital of Kigali, urging Hutus to kill the “Tutsi cockroaches.” The mass murders of Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians are rationalized as pre-emptive self-defense against the advancing RPF and its allies — a political statement that, given current world affairs, becomes even more uncomfortably resonant and suggestive.
Footage of the actual massacres — of corpses piled by the hundreds on roads, in ditches and, in one surreal shocking image, floating down river — is deployed sparely and brutally effective.
Even when focusing on individual survival stories, moments that could potentially sink into bathos or exploitation, Glucksmann, Mezerette and Hazan seek out deeper, more complex truths. In one segment, they cut between two men — a Tutsi survivor and a Hutu killer, now in prison for war crimes — who found themselves on opposite sides of a tense siege, to vividly stirring and emotionally complicated effect.
If the pic’s second half is somewhat less overpowering, its simmering rage is more concentrated, focusing first on the failure of the U.S. to intervene (having learned its lesson from the 1992 Somali crisis), and then on the political motivations of French President Francois Mitterand, who sent soldiers to Kigali to strengthen Hutu forces and fight the RPF — the one group that, the filmmakers claim, could have ended the genocide if it could have managed to bring down the Hutu regime. The extended attack on Mitterand and the international community for turning a blind eye to the reality of the massacres is carefully documented and almost too disturbing to be believed.
Deftly mixing black-and-white photographs with interviews from French professors and historians, docu’s impressive tech package includes excellent English subtitles. It would be even more effective, however, without the frequent intertitles (i.e. “A French Affair”) that segment the narrative and disrupt momentum.