The 1994 genocide in Rwanda serves as the springboard for emotive but thuddingly didactic drama in helmer Raoul Peck’s “Sometimes in April,” competing in Berlin against similarly themed but glossier “Hotel Rwanda.” Peck’s pic gets its hands dirtier by swimming in muddy waters of moral responsibility through the story of a fractured family living through the war’s atrocities and still dealing with the aftermath 10 years on. Set for HBO broadcast in the U.S. on March 19, “April” doesn’t quite transcend its upmarket-TV roots, but could generate modest coin showers theatrically elsewhere, on the heels of “Hotel.”
Described cautiously in final credits as a “dramatization” of real events and people, “April” doesn’t stick closely to the story of a specific historical figure like Paul Rusesabagina in “Hotel Rwanda.” (Rusesabagina’s Hotel Mille Collines is however, a destination for refugees in “April.”).
Still, there’s a feeling of well-researched veracity about “April’s” depiction of the Rwandan genocide, which saw nearly one million people massacred in a hundred days. Fiction or not, pic shows more of the kind of violence that mostly takes place off-screen in “Hotel.” While viewers are spared depiction of the infamous machete murders here, the film doesn’t shirk from portraying the incessant massacre of innocents in their homes and on the streets at gunpoint, or even the mowing down of a roomful of terrified schoolgirls in pic’s most harrowing sequence.
In an honorable but clumsily executed attempt to get the nation’s story up-to-date, “April” cuts back and forth between 1994 and the recent present as war criminals face their accusers at the Intl. Criminal Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania. Hutu schoolteacher Augustin Muganza (Idris Elba, from “The Wire”) comes to confront his imprisoned brother Honore (Oris Erhuero) who had been a DJ for Radio RTLM in ’94, inciting people to kill Tutsi “cockroaches” over the airwaves. Although undeniably guilty of that crime, Honore had at the start of the war tried, unsuccessfully, to help save Augustin’s Tutsi wife Jeanne (Carole Karemara) and their kids. Pic tries to build up minor suspense over exactly how this went down, which feels like an unnecessary device.
Augustin’s present-day partner Martine (Pamela Nomvete), who was once a teacher at a school attended by Augustin’s daughter Anne-Marie (Michelle Rugema), gets her own trauma-stuffed plotline. Meanwhile, real-life Washington, D.C., diplomat Prudence Bushnell (Debra Winger) is tracked throughout as she tries fruitlessly with sympathetic colleagues to persuade an intransigent State Dept. (who don’t want “another Somalia” on their hands) to intervene.
It’s in this U.S.-set section that Peck’s script wags its finger most flagrantly, laying out the price in lives of America’s slowness to react — while the nation’s media pays more attention to Kurt Cobain’s suicide and dozy reporters ask at news conferences, “Which ones are the good guys?”
Justly angry but talky script insists on the villainy of Rwanda’s former colonizers, the U.S. government, the ineffectual UN security forces and, almost as an afterthought, the Rwandans who dealt death to their fellow countrymen. It’s a feel-bad story anyway you slice it, despite the vague attempt at applying redemptive balm and some hope for the future at the end.
Helmer Peck, engaged with African history previously in his biopic “Lumumba,” and has made several well-received and astute documentaries. His commitment to the subject comes deeply felt here, but his helming varies from simply flat to excessively sentimental.
Thesping is likewise somewhat patchy, with Elba underwhelming in the lead role, although Erhuero glints as Augustin’s complex brother, and both main women, Rwandan Karemara and South African Nomvete, are more than good.
Tech package offers little to write home about, with Eric Guichard’s docu-style lensing rather subdued after his more eye-catching work in the recent “Earth and Ashes.” Production design by Benoit Barouh offers a credible sense of place in the African sequences but seems more generic in the U.S. segs.