‘Black Earth Rising’ Creator Breaks Down the Challenges and Nuances of Exploring the Rwandan Genocide

Black Earth Rising
Des Willie/BBC/Netflix

In 1994 O.J. Simpson was arrested for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, and the 24-hour news cycle was born. Yet, the death of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis by members of the Hutu ethnic majority in Rwanda during that same period went largely unnoticed in the West. That inconsistency was in part what inspired creator Hugo Blick (“The Honourable Woman”) to bring an eight-episode limited series, “Black Earth Rising,” to viewers nearly a quarter of a century later.

“Black Earth Rising” tells the fictional story of Tutsi survivor Kate Ashby (Michaela Coel), a legal investigator who was adopted as a little girl by a famous International Criminal Court (ICC) lawyer (Harriet Walter). Years later when her mother prepares to help prosecute a Rwandan militia leader who fought against the genocide, it drives a wedge between the pair and kicks off a deadly chain of events. John Goodman also stars as the team’s American boss, Michael Ennis.

“I went to The Congo, I went to Rwanda, and I went to the ICC. I traveled around just feeling the atmosphere, speaking with people and getting a sense of the real stories that surround this necessary fiction,” Blick, who wrote, directed, produced and took a small role in the series, says. “It took me a long six months of research. I didn’t have a destination in mind, I was very interested in exploring the aftermath and legacy of trauma.”

Blick notes that as he began working on the show, “‘nuanced’ was the watchword for the project” because to enter such a world with just one side to the story would not do it justice.

“Trauma of that size — the Rwandan genocide — is going to be societal as well as individual,” he says. “It was a very big template — a big thing to look at. I was most interested in looking at how we in the West had responded to that aftermath and legacy of trauma, and that’s how the story developed.”

Here, Blick talks with Variety about the challenges of creating an international series of this magnitude, the potential dangers surrounding production and how he hoped to avoid emotional exhaustion for viewers as he retold the story of an historic genocide.

What was the most challenging area of this story for you to get into?

The emotional side is always the hardest, so seeing the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide is a traumatic experience to see and to witness. It was a quarter of a century ago now almost, but it’s still so incredibly fresh in people’s minds. I remember utilizing an element of my own experience into the fiction of the final script. I was at a hotel and there was a very sweet young hotel assistant with a very lovely nature to him. When he turned away from me he had this terrible scar in the back of his head. Later, very sensitively I hope, I brought it up in conversation with the hotel manager and he said, “Oh yes he was found in a pit; he was a survivor of the genocide.” When you hear that and see that, it strikes you very hard. [But] the hardest logistical part was heading over the border into the DRC. It’s just a very difficult place to get to and it feels difficult. It feels pretty chaotic still and pretty volatile. So that was a little bit worrisome.

Would it have been possible to do a show like this say, five years ago?

No. As a creator I wouldn’t have felt mature enough to be engaged in the exploration. I had just finished “The Honourable Woman,” which explored the conflict in Israel and Palestine, following some very individual story tracks. I felt prepared to have a look at the West relationship with modern Africa, but on a more geo-political scale the passing of a quarter-century is a very big milestone in recent history. And so, because of that quarter-century tag, I feel it’s just about time to look at that and to explore the aftermath of the events.

How does wearing so many hats, from producer and director, to writer and actor, help or perhaps even hinder the collaboration process?

I am a sort of weird collectivist libertarian. That doesn’t make sense, but what it means is I am the guy with a vision, and when I collect or gather a crew around to help make that vision come to fruition, I tell them what the vision is because it gives them direction. But then once they get a sense of it and understand that vision, they have to make it for themselves. If it’s cinematography, if it’s production design, if it’s editing… whatever the contribution to the production. Once they understand what the vision is, I leave it to them, that libertarian quality, to invest in how they best with their talents can fulfill that vision. For example in production design once I’d really spoken at length with the designer [Chris Roope], sometimes I would enter the locations and it would be the first time I’d seen the build and design and it would be perfect because the designer had fulfilled his idea of what the vision was. Necessarily I’ll review it. It’s putting all of that vision into individuals who then put it further into their visions, and I hope that becomes a really collaborative exercise.

Why did you decide to use animation to depict the actual genocide?

There were two reasons. The magnitude of such institutional violence was very huge — it was like staring at the sun in that you could not do it directly. The second reason was, frankly, because there have been a number of stories and films about the genocide, some of which have been very good. I felt that no matter what I did, if I was going to attempt to re-create them in live-action that the audience would feel that they’d seen it before. I desperately did not want to achieve exhaustion, emotional exhaustion, with the theme. So it felt both necessary and respectful to do it a different way. By taking that omission we wouldn’t make the audience sit back and switch off as if they’ve seen it before. Then, as for the actual style of the animation, I wanted it to be very simple and elegant and to tell the story as simply and elementary as possible.

How did you settle on Leonard Cohen’s “You Want it Darker” as the theme song?

It was during the last part of writing and research — I was writing and researching throughout the whole process — that I saw the song. I thought, “Oh, that’s so telling.” And obviously the candles were so interpreted as help that never came. It was very interpretive of the experience I had been researching in Central Africa. But then the thing about “You Want it Darker…” the audience might think it’s the filmmaker speaking to the audience saying, “You want it darker? This is what it’s going to be like. This is a story of horror, or something.” But it wasn’t intended to be that. It was actually a song written at me, I felt. The further I explored the further I had to go. And it did get pretty dark. But ultimately it’s quite redemptive as a story so I felt that you had to go dark before you could get to the other side. And that’s why this song really means something to me.

As you were filming did you have any advisors on board?

Not while filming, we had to be quite careful. It is first and foremost an alternative universe world I’m looking at. Because obviously there is no female president that runs Rwanda at the moment so it has a separation of fiction. But of course because it takes an historical background of fact, these things have a sensitivity that one has to be very careful with. There are elements of criticism perhaps within the story of the Rwandan government that could find individuals who might be targeted because of some of the explorations the story tries to involve itself with. As a consequence we had to be very careful about who we used on-set. And that’s why we didn’t use Rwandan actors. It’s not because we didn’t wish to, but we didn’t wish to place them in any concern for their safety or for the safety of their families living in Rwanda if there were criticisms of the story we had. So we had to be quite careful. … Prior to that yes, I did do a great deal of research with individuals who helps me comprehend the world. Because as I say the genocide, and the aftermath, and the legacy did need to be explored. It’s not critical of the Rwandan government but it does scrutinize some of the actions that the Rwandan government has taken in the years following.

Did you face any other production challenges in that respect?

For safety reasons we did not go to Rwanda to film, which was something I wanted to explore and did in the initial stages. But it was a little bit too difficult, so we filmed in Ghana. We chose to film in Ghana because it had the same elemental typography so it had a feeling of the same kind of world, which South Africa wouldn’t have. So we took considerable steps to try and keep as much of an authentic feel as possible but it was not possible to film in Rwanda.

Were you able to say everything you felt you wanted to say about these issues in a limited series format?

Yes. And even as I’ve just spoken to you about that previous answer about Rwanda and its government, I want to stress that…I am rested with the project because I feel ultimately that it is nuanced. It celebrates a great deal of what the Rwandan government and the governments have done in the years following the genocide. And then on the other side it also raises some questions and scrutiny at some of the motivations of the Rwandan government. So I felt that it ultimately is a nuanced, balanced exploration and I have to stress that with any project of this nature it is like stepping on rice paper. You will never not leave a mark, it’s impossible. I hope for myself that the tone of the story is true and nuanced, but you will always find people who won’t agree with you. It is the very nature of the subject I’ve chosen to explore.

“Black Earth Rising” debuts on Netflix Jan. 25.