This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Sometimes In April : Review

Uniformed UN soldiers load foreign (read white) civilians into trucks and fire into the air to fend off desperate locals who know they face certain death if they cannot get away. As the trucks drive off, gangs of machete-wielding killers, who have been waiting, step out of the jungle and walk towards the terrified people. One of the militiamen casually bends and scrapes his machete on the surface of the pavement – scrape, scrape, the noising drilling through all other sounds – to sharpen it.

In its casual, brutal murderousness, that scene is the essence of “Sometimes in April”, which I finally managed to get a look at yesterday. Set in Rwanda in 1994, at the time of the genocidal massacre of Tutsi and Hutu civilians by the Rwandan army and their allies the Interahamwe militia, and ten years later during the war crimes trials that followed, it is a searing look at the violence that permeates and runs through what we pretend to be our civilisation.

“Sometimes in April” is the story of two brothers, and the different paths of their lives, and how war touches the people around them.

Enough is known of the Rwandan civil war of the early nineties that I wouldn’t want to repeat what many people already know. But, before I begin a review proper, here’s a bit of potted history that might help.

Rwanda is a tiny nation in the depths of Central Africa which – like its neighbour Burundi – is inhabited by two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi. These tribal distinctions are more than a little arbitrary, being accentuated by colonial administrators who chose the “taller, fairer, more advanced” Tutsis as their collaborators to rule the Hutu majorities. Part of the process of identifying who was a Hutu and who a Tutsi – after generations of intermingling of these tribes, the genes were thoroughly mixed – was the measuring of noses and other physical features to find out who had the more “European” physiognomy, and hence was a Tutsi. As always, this policy led to the creation of a Westernised collaborationist class ruling over a suppressed mass of their own people and developing a vested interest in perpetuating their own rule. Equally inevitable was the mass resentment that finally – post independence – flared out into rebellion and retribution.

By the early nineties, Rwanda was in a ferment, with the army (now almost entirely Hutu) fighting a vicious insurgency by Tutsi refugees largely based in neighbouring Uganda. Meanwhile, as the world looked on unconcerned, fascist Hutu militia armed and prepared to wipe the Tutsi people from the face of the earth.

Over the span of a hundred days, starting in April 1994, between three quarters of a million and a million people – mostly Tutsi, but also any Hutu who opposed fascist and racist policies – died in a genocide unleashed by the militias with the active backing of the Rwandan Army. One has to remember that we are talking of a tiny country, virtually a dot on the map of Africa, to understand what such numbers mean. It has been said that there was not a single Tutsi family in Rwanda at the time who had not lost members in the genocide.

The world did nothing. While parsing phrases to see if what was going on was “genocide”, or “acts of genocide”, or something else altogether, the western nations did nothing except withdraw all their own (white) civilians trapped in the country, leaving behind everyone else. UN peacekeepers from Belgium were withdrawn after some of them – forbidden to defend themselves – were kicked, beaten, hamstrung, castrated and ultimately suffocated by having their own genitals stuffed in their mouths (no, I am NOT inventing this tale). The then (female) Prime Minister of Rwanda, whose bodyguards they were, was shot dead during this episode.

The violence ended when the Rwandan Patriotic Front finally overwhelmed the Rwandan Army and forced its remnants and the militias to flee the country and take refuge in neighbouring Congo (then Zaire). While I’ve pointed out elsewhere that the RPF swiftly got involved in the expanding Zairian civil war (which continues to this day), it did finally capture some of the perpetrators of the massacres and bring them to trial. Many others, however, were – and are – sheltered and protected by France, Belgium, Kenya and other nations. I doubt if many of them will ever be punished for their crimes.

In 1994, Augustin Muganza is a Hutu army officer married to a Tutsi whose brother is a rabid hate spewing commentator on RTLM (Hutu Power Radio). As he watches his trainees taken over by the violent fascists of the Interahamwe, who openly advocate killing the “cockroaches”, and as he sees the army openly acquiring and stockpiling weapons for an attack on all Tutsis, he is stricken to his conscience. His closest friend, Xavier, a Tutsi officer, shares his misgivings. In the meantime, the insurgents of the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front shoot down the aeroplane of the country’s president, Juvenal Habayarimana – who was ironically on the way back from peace talks. (In another of the ironies of history, Habayarimana’s plane’s wreckage fell in his own backyard.)

This was the excuse the militias were looking for to begin an all out assault on the Tutsis. Augustin, who is under suspension from his army rank, shelters his Tutsi fellow officer and his family in his own house, later getting his brother – the RTLM man – to try and drive them, along with his own wife and sons, to safety. The brother vanishes, and so does the family (wife Jeanne and two sons), so far as Augustin knows. As we see, the brother does try to get them to safety, running the gauntlet of several roadblocks before being finally stopped and his ploy rumbled. (What finally happened to the family is revealed only at the very end of the film, in a reunion of the two brothers).

Ten years later, in 2004, Augustin is a teacher who gets a letter from the brother, Honore, who is a prisoner facing trial for war crimes (this is where the film begins, after a preface showing the colonial administrators at their racist worst). With his girlfriend Martine – a teacher in the school where his other child, a daughter, studied – Augustin sets out to find out what happened to his family and bring some kind of peace to himself.

Shifting back and forth between 1994 and 2004, “Sometimes in April” takes the viewer to the heart of darkness and the implicit irony of those who sat and watched the genocide unfold without lifting a finger to stop it sitting in judgement a decade later, and the need of the survivors to balance their new lives with the requirements of justice, retribution, and closure.

“Sometimes in April” needs to be seen in comparison and contrast to that other movie based on the events of that genocide, “Hotel Rwanda” starring Don Cheadle. While “Sometimes” is infinitely the better movie, it is not so much a separate experience from “Hotel Rwanda” as a complement to it. One should watch “Hotel Rwanda” first for background, and then “Sometimes” is the richer experience.

In what ways does “Sometimes” score over “Hotel Rwanda”? In virtually every one that matters. “Hotel Rwanda,” which I reviewed earlier, is – relatively speaking – a mainstream Hollywood movie, with clear cut “good“ and “bad” and no shades of grey. It has a clear cut hero, evil villains, and the movie ends as soon as the hero’s task is over, with a rather fancifully happy conclusion. Even the violence is seen at one remove – on the TV screen. Except for one surreal scene of a truck driving over corpses in the dawn, the rest is almost entirely just loud threats and waving of machetes.

“Sometimes” does not shy away from its violence. It shows everything – rotting corpses in swamps, the role of churches in assisting the genocide and where women prisoners were used as sex slaves, the casual way in which people were butchered and thrown into rivers, everything. Loads of corpses are hauled along in a convoy of trucks, and nobody really turns a hair. The film shows one of the most gruesome incidents of the genocide – the killing of 120 girl students of the Sainte Marie school because the Hutus among them refused to separate themselves from the Tutsis so the latter could be killed, and – at the same time – doesn’t ignore the casual brutality of the RPF when it summarily executed anyone it felt like after its own victory. “Hotel Rwanda” would never do something like that.

And “Sometimes” does not pretend things are all “happy ever after” once the shooting stops. It explores the tribunals – the big one run by the UN in Arusha, and the little ones in the countryside, where pink clad murderers are paraded before villagers to be identified for the crimes they committed.

It’s a harrowing experience, but worth the watch, and more. Not for weak stomachs.

I've no hesitation in awarding it five stars.

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