In more ways than one, the persistent ache of loss permeates “Birds Are Singing in Kigali,” a broken-surfaced, broken-hearted reflection on the Rwandan genocide that marks a heartfelt swansong for married Polish writer-directors Krzysztof Krauze and Joanna Kos-Krauze. Completed by Kos-Krauze after her husband passed away mid-production in 2014, this obliquely framed story centers on a Polish ornithologist who escapes the carnage with the refugee daughter of a slain colleague in tow, tracing their sometimes clashing attempts to process their respective traumas over the following four years. Semi-experimental in form, and sometimes trickily opaque with regard to its characters’ emotions and motivations, “Kigali” appears to bear a few scars from its tragically interrupted production, but still achieves bittersweet catharsis by its conclusion.
The third feature helmed by Krauze and Kos-Krauze as a duo — though their screenwriting partnership began a couple of films earlier — “Birds Are Singing in Kigali” premieres in competition in Karlovy Vary, where all their previous collaborations have unspooled. (2005’s “My Nikifor” swept top jury honors.) Given something of a hero’s welcome at the Czech festival, the film should proceed to a healthy festival run with mostly European distribution potential. Human rights-themed showcases are likely to be particularly accommodating of a film that, while set over 20 years ago, feels only too topical in its depiction of the social and bureaucratic obstacles faced by Third World refugees once they land on safe soil.
Enigmatic personal conflicts further complicate matters for 23-year-old Claudine (the impressive Eliane Umuhire) when she arrives in Poland alongside her notional benefactor Anna (Jowita Budnik), after her family is slaughtered by Hutu extremists in 1994. Refusing Anna’s offer of shelter and legal representation, she opts instead to go into a refugee center — a decision later reversed after what one imagines is a further round of emotional abuse. Making viewers work hard for shards of backstory, Krauze and Kos-Krauze’s script doesn’t presume to read either woman’s mind as they both struggle to assimilate into regular Polish society after the visceral horrors of Rwanda. It’s a distanced perspective that approximates the potential real-life difficulties of communicating with trauma victims, and makes for challenging viewing: For characters who have lived the unimaginable, audiences might find that sympathy comes more swiftly and readily than empathy.
While Claudine battles personal demons and the unwelcoming scrutiny of Polish immigration authorities, Anna — despite all the comparative privileges of being on home turf — experiences her own feelings of alienation and anxiety. Mentally unable to continue her research on Africa’s vulture population (a pretty direct metaphor for the war itself), she enters a tailspin; despite being the two people who best understand each other’s pain, Claudine and Anna’s shared anguish only makes relations between them more fractious. Recovery, for both, can only come via a return to Rwanda, where Claudine must lay literal skeletons to rest.
In writing the film, Krauze and Kos-Krauze were inspired by their own time living in Africa; there’s a grounding authenticity to “Kigali’s” delineation of the geographical and emotional disconnect between its two worlds. Certain disorienting gaps in its storytelling, meanwhile, appear to be by design in a film largely about rupture — though not every withheld detail in the film’s structure, ambitiously sculpted by editor Katarzyna Leśniak, feels entirely necessary. The elliptical nature of the narrative is mirrored in the film’s deliberately slippery visual design, led by the intricate compositions of cinematographer Krzysztof Ptak — another collaborator who, sadly, died before the film was completed. Rounded out by contributions from Józefina Gocman and Wojciech Staroń, Ptak’s work reflects the leads’ shared psychological state in its wintry, washed-out palette and obstacle-laden framing: Characters’ faces are frequently obscured, or their bodies separated from the lens by furniture or tree branches, as we and the camera alike try to reach them.
The actors, for their part, keep things effectively simple amid this agitated mise-en-scène, with Umuhire particularly powerful as she wrestles with Claudine’s alternately surging feelings of anger, exasperation and abject, petrifying grief. “It’s like I am dead,” she confesses at one point, when any semblance of healing feels particularly far from view. We often talk of people in such a position seeking closure, though for the heroines of “Birds Are Singing in Kigali,” opening life once more is harder still.