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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Love Thy Neighbor
by Donald Levit

Directed and produced by Anne Aghion, My Neighbor, My Killer has its New York première at the 20th International Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Lincoln Center and has been given the Nestor Almendros Award “for courage in filmmaking,” an honor named after  the legendary cinematographer who was a founder of the Festival. Filmed and edited over a decade and resulting along the way in the hour-long TV pieces of the Gacaca Trilogy, the eighty-minute documentary brings excruciating evil deeds to an individual human level, while at the same betraying the cinematic shortcomings of its participant/victim-oriented non-narrational approach.

Weighing on the world’s uneasy conscience, the 1994 Hutu massacre of Tutsi fellow countrymen needs no introduction, though it’s not generally known that the tribal rivalries, killings and exiles predated independence in 1961-62. In contrast to the West’s immediate proceedings at Nuremberg for crimes within its own house, the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda sits in Tanzania and, a sinecure for lawyers and judges more than a dozen years now, has meted out relatively light sentences to twenty-nine military defendants and one popular rap singer.

Recent fiction and documentary films have dealt with Apartheid and the continent’s major woes, as well as with the several forms and repercussions of Truth and Reconciliation Hearings. My Neighbor, My Killer stands alone in approaching the literal grassroots level efforts to heal and move ahead, not through judgment and punishment from above but public discussion, testimony, confession and a start at reconciliation among enemies, perpetrators and victims.

Faced with impossible thousands of incarcerated genocide suspects, the central government in Kigali authorized numbers of local community courts. Throughout the film, Radio Rwanda voiceovers fix dates like inaugural January 26, 2001, while General Prosecutor Jean-Marie Mbarushimana introduces the precepts of Gacaca to Ntongwe District community lockup inmates who are to be allowed to return home and to the villagers, sometimes their own relatives, who have survived and will confront them. In effect, judges, prosecutors and defenders will be ordinary citizens, “your neighbors,” even those seated in front behind tables and distinguished by bright Inkiko Gacaca sashes.

Horrifying statistics and photo images are not forced into the film, indeed might have rendered viewers more media-desensitized than they already are. Instead, focus falls on one cluster of rudimentary houses. In this hill hamlet of Gafumba, more or less once weekly open-air sessions are conducted for a thousand days, until early last year.

The returned accused take up their former dwellings and occupations, some indicating for the camera where they were on “night patrol.” They appear before the local hearings, though few admit full guilt. Concentration is on two or three of them, and on two or three women, not old but considered elderly for this society -- one reason for their escaping death -- who lost husbands and children to the blood-lust insanity of machetes, clubs and farm implements. They participate but understandably will not internalize the principle of forgiveness or being neighborly again.

Partly a consequence of the surrounding patriarchy, and much a result of the unimaginable that they have witnessed and lost, these women are disturbingly passive as much as resigned. Feeling empty shells of “sadness incarnate” left to die, they bear testimony to the aftershock that lasts a lifetime.

While the film should be applauded for avoiding the call to sensationalism, its beaten-down, nearly toneless low key, with not a voice raised in righteous anger, grows repetitious. For cinema considered purely as cinema, empathy alone is not enough to hold things together. Speakers are difficult to differentiate, and the whole does not build cumulatively. Individual testimony, noted Schiller, has a place in history but, “by itself, does not add up to it.”

(Released by Gacaca Productions; not rated by MPAA.)

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