Sometimes in April is not about « dealing with a big subject », unlike in many other political films. Is it more about a necessity?
No, it was more complex than that. I wasn’t looking to make a film about the Rwandan genocide: someone approached me with the idea. I was asked if I’d be interested in making a film about Paul Rusesabagina who, at the time, was the manager of the Mille collines Hotel. The American cable channel HBO had purchased the rights to several chapters of Philip Gourevitch’s book. I had refused: politically-speaking, I couldn’t imagine working on a character of Schindler’s List who was black, as they had explained, when there were practically no other films (aside from documentaries) on this very recent genocide. It would have meant passing on the same prejudices about Africa that have existed for a long time in cinema. But they didn’t give up. They insisted and asked what would be of interest to me. So I lay down my conditions: a film about Rwandan characters, shot from their point of view, in Rwanda, and I would choose the language after a research over there, where I would be able to observe and listen, along with the possibility of refusing again.
Did the subject appeal to you?
I felt it was nearly impossible to make a film on such a subject. As a film-maker from the Third World, you face the absence of film memory, of a past, of an outlook. Each time you make a film, it opens a nearly-blank page, which is a huge responsibility. If we can make films like Brokeback Mountain, it’s because all of the mythology of the western has been accepted, the references already exist. You either go against it or make use of it. We don’t have anything like that to help us. It’s a big risk to take and on such a subject, it’s to hear people say it’s once again a movie in which black people brutishly kill other black people. It would have upheld the usual opinion. Films are not innocent.
And so you ended up in Rwanda.
Yes. Once I was there, I found myself confronted with a reality- it is the human being, not so much the film-maker, who is faced with something incomprehensible that changes his outlook on the world and changes him as well. An answer is essential, if only to yourself. This is when I found the motivation, not to make a film, but to confront myself to this tragedy. It was the beginning of a long process of research and reflection.
Between a historical reconstruction based on real facts and the construction of a symbolic story, you chose the second option.
My approach as a film-maker is clear: I can only work from real facts. I never did anything which wasn’t based on a reality or well-known characters that I eventually fleshed out or altered. So I immediately went up to people and listened to their stories. I wrote the first version from the stories I had heard from the people I met. For me, the challenge has always been to show reality by using reality, all by remaining within the lines of cinema and not those of didactics or a PhD. Therefore, the film is completely transparent- I know the names and I know the moments. I know why I confronted this particular character to another. Augustin, the main character that we follow through the first part of the film, embodies someone I met. For the second part, I was thinking about yet another person. His brother exists- he is maybe not exactly the same as the one in the film but what he says on screen has been nearly left untouched. The confrontation between both brothers has not been invented because in this genocide, anything that could statistically happen happened! I heard other stories about families who were divided and ended up in opposite camps. Even that hasn’t been invented. I gathered dozens of stories about mixed couples. In each scene of this film, I realized I was in a true story. At one point, Augustin is at home trying to hide and doesn’t know where his daughter is. I lived this through someone who had told me his story- how he hid, how he tried to go up on the roof, make the phones work, and go to his Belgian neighbor’s who didn’t let him in Bit by bit, everything is true. It’s like a Lego game with all of the pieces and with which we can build a house.
It reminds me of the cinema lesson that you gave in 1998 at the Namur Festival. You said you had a shoebox filled with notes. In the same way, you put together a story with bits of reality.
Absolutely. And I went to the extreme of that approach when working on L’affaire Villemin, which is a real story. Cinema is rarely as close to reality as this. From all of the events to the dialogue and to the participants’ jokes, everything was real. It was simply a question of choices because the original material was very rich. Some wondered how I came to deal with this case but, besides the personal reasons, it corresponds to the continuation of my work on reality and cinema.
The two brothers who play Abel and Caïn in Sometimes in April also play in Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley.
You’re the fourth person asking me about it .
But the difference is that in your film, you emphasize the present time a lot. Did you want to highlight the fact that the genocide is still a current issue?
Again, this is about my structured approach to a film: making a circle, seeing to it that past and present make one. We live with this past, especially when it is that heavy. It would be inconceivable for me to deal with the genocide without mentioning the Rwandan people today and without closing the circle. The bend in the end brings us both elsewhere and back to the same place. Except for the fact that in the end, we have the choice to make things change or not. That is why I use a broken structure, never linear, and with different time levels to the story. When I was writing the film, there wasn’t any fiction on Rwanda yet. I needed to give it a « biblical » nature, which could show the scope (here, it was ten years). Otherwise, there is no possible justification for this disaster. Same thing for L’affaire Villemin: in six hours of film, I would have passed on the same 20-year-old peddled prejudices about the couple. It is necessary to put things in a political, historical and emotional context while following the path that has been taken by each character in order to make them contradict.
Today is especially about justice: Arusha, the gacacas. It’s about memory and how we judge it.
Absolutely: justice is one of the essential questions to which Rwandan people must answer and are trying to answer to by multiple ways. I remember that the first time I set foot in Rwanda, it was April, a very harsh month, very particular. People talked to me and confided in me, in this atmosphere. Some told me that they had practically never told their story over ten years. So I had to deal with very painful and deep things. What interested me at first was Rwanda today and tomorrow. How these people still manage to live with each other. Yesterday’s killers cross the survivors. Sometimes, people pointed out the genocide perpetrators to me. This impossibility of living together while not having the choice is one of the biggest challenges one could ever imagine, one that no other genocide has ever known. That is why I open and close the film with images of children.
Is that why Augustin is a schoolteacher?
Yes and, for that matter, the character was inspired by a catholic Tutsi priest with whom I talked for a long time, who also had quite a few problems with his superiors. For a long time, he was one of the Church’s « alibi priests », which served to show that it had at least a small quota of Tutsis on the seminary. He told me about the difficulties he had, dealing with the subject in class. It was a starting point for this character. Alone, he must give an answer to the generation to come.
Augustin is an ambiguous character at first.
He is passive, like many people. This phenomenon is not only specific to people with power but also to victims who do not believe in the possibility of this catastrophe. Each of them tries to postpone the moment when they will have to make a decision. He sees things coming but doesn’t take action. On the contrary, his wife comes from a generation who has lived through the previous attempts and knows what to expect.
Rather than lapsing into sentimentalism, your film is precise about the political context and points out the causes. It doesn’t either avoid the subject of the role of France and the UNO.
Yes, this is clearly about politics and ambition. People don’t kill each other out of hate but because they are taught to hate each other and because they are being used and manipulated for questions of power. Politics is the starting point. The film follows this lead, although it doesn’t bang you over the head with it. It’s about the balance of power. Some people had the power to change things and didn’t use it: these were political decisions. As for France and the crucial role she played, several films would be necessary to deal with the subject!
After the Westerner’s departure, there weren’t any more pictures of the genocide. They only reappeared as propaganda with the Opération Turquoise, along with pictures of the refugees.
No-one understood that these pictures of thousands of people walking did not show the victims but the killers or their accomplices. The soldiers were pushing the people as if they were a sort of shield, and the people were penetrated by the propaganda which depicted the Tutsis as devils who were going to eat them. The only picture of the genocide, which was also widely used, was the one I recreated for the film. From a distance and through a telephoto lens, you see someone being killed with a machete. The world was struck with terror at the sight of these pictures showing the population fleeing and people started sending help. A help which eventually worsened the situation in the refugee camps because the assassins used it for traffic with the Congolese among others, and for keeping their grip on the refugees. It’s in situations like this one that you realize the impact that pictures have.
I imagine that it must raise delicate ethical questions: you have to recreate the pictures, do a reconstruction.
I have never had that problem once into a project. The real problem for me is prior to that: Is it legitimate for me to make this film? From which point of view will I be making it? What role will it play in this tragedy? I could only make this film with the help of Rwandans and in complete liberty. If the Rwandans adopted it, it would be possible. In Rwanda, I ended up in a small church where there had been two thousand deaths and many remains of those people’s lives such as cloths, implements and toothbrushes. A young boy showed me the hole he had escaped through when his parents had died. At first, you are stunned by reality. But the people come up to you and give you something that is a treasure for people like me. Associations and citizens was welcomed me as if I were Rwandan. Everyone had seen Lumumba and I had been introduced by close Rwandan friends. When my partly-French team was doubted, someone from the highest level of power intervened. People react very instinctively about anything that concerns France (This may have changed with the new ambassador who has really grasped the situation and, being married to a Burkina-Faso native, has a more humanistic and rational outlook on Africa). So there had been discussions on a high level to decide on whether to let me film or not. But very quickly, I was trusted and they let me film in peace. When I took the decision to do this film, I made a moral pact according to which Rwandan people would be the first to watch the film, even though it was difficult to have that kind of authorization from American studios. It was first shown at the Kigali Stadium in front of thirty thousand people. The risks of being pirated were huge but HBO financed the operation. Aside from a few implacable individuals on both « sides », the film was a tremendous success for the majority. It is now seen as a reference, despite the other projects that have been carried out since.
The Rwandans really want films to be made on the genocide. Why do you think this is?
I believe they don’t want to be alone with this story. It’s of concern to everyone. It is not a local genocide- it’s a genocide of the human race. This is more than what you call tribalism. We are faced with a human disaster. Rwandans tell us: « You need to understand what has happened because this is your misfortune as well ». No-one is protected from this kind of horror. And, when you suffer a trauma, one way of pulling through is to talk about it, so as not to choke on it. The Rwandans started to talk quite quickly when you compare it to what happened after the Holocaust.
There was a moment of silence, including in the artistic undertaking of the event.
Yes, because it’s difficult! You need to have the strength and the will to go! I was asked to come. How do you start? You’re afraid of being wrong, you don’t understand. I was overwhelmed by it, I had to face and question everything I had done up to this day. It was such a shock that I couldn’t leave Rwanda without doing anything.
It’s true that there are very harsh scenes in the film.
Yes, and they are not innocent scenes. We spent three months preparing them. Our success is due to the osmosis there was in the team. It was like a real family; there were even weddings! The harshness of some of the scenes was counterbalanced by the solidarity there was between us. There were moments of emotion when everyone was in tears. There were also moments when the thousand extras recreated a scene by making the exact movements that were needed, just naturally. We talked a lot, worked with psychologists and were careful that the salaries be divided up justly so that there could be a good atmosphere and so it wasn’t just a foreign production that makes its film and leaves like Attila. We wanted things to be very tightly rooted.
It’s a real cinema project within the framework of a TV production. Was that ever a problem for you? You seem to have had both the freedom and the budget.
HBO’s slogan is: « It’s not TV, it’s HBO ». That tells it all! As far as I’m concerned, I have never made a TV film. I’ve always done cinema. We filmed with a 35mm and we had appropriate means. Even the people at HBO were surprised that we managed to make a film of that scale. Of course, the challenge was to make a film for cinema with the economical means of TV: the length of the shooting and so on. I had a solid team which was motivated and dedicated and total freedom. That’s what allowed us such success. Despite a hard and strict contract, I was able to make the film I wanted, the way I wanted it. I even went to France. The people in charge at HBO came over to see how things were going a few times. We had very productive discussions about the script and the editing but they were always on my side. As I come from the Third World, I usually manage my budget clearly and don’t go into the sort of wild imaginings an inspired artist has. These people helped me go further by giving me additional budgets.
The actors are just right. How did you find them?
Finding someone for the main role took me quite a lot of time, all the more so because we had to go from a film shot in French to a film shot in English. Shooting in Rwanda was not easy. We discovered everything. The five films which came after ours took advantage of our experience, including the people we had trained and who all took part in those films, the actors and the extras. The banking procedures, the insurance, the shipping and road transport everything had to be invented and our partners in the public services had to get used to the cinema’rhythm’: doctors, soldiers, and the police who had to close access to some roads. It was a learning experience for everyone and we were very much supported. No companies wanted to insure the film. We had to work with several, and each company insured one aspect of the production. It was a difficult expedition. When we switched to English, we had to change part of the cast. Finding American actors to play Africans is delicate. Unlike others, I could not settle for make-believe: in the US, no-one sees the difference but my challenge was to make a film in which the Rwandan characters would be convincing to the Rwandans. Nothing was left to chance, starting with the accent. Besides, at the first screening, the Rwandans believed that the main actor Idris Elba was from Rwanda. I made him come months in advance. He lived with the people, learnt their habits, their way of moving and speaking. It was his first main role. He’s a little well-known in the US but mostly for his roles in TV shows. We had an international casting call in France, South Africa, in England a lot, in the US and ended up gathering up a nice group of black actors whom we rarely see. It was also a staging approach, choosing actors who had a force, the will to go far, to believe in their character and not stay on the outside.
French audiences are waiting for the film.
In the US, HBO is television. So the film cannot be shown at the cinema unless there is a change in the contracts and in the organization of the film, as the team has been paid according to the television industry. Arte bought it but they are trying to sort out some problems about rights with Germany. The contracts are being discussed. However, the film is out on DVD in Zone 1 so it’s widely accessible in stores. Also, many festivals in Europe and elsewhere are showing it.
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