Twenty-one years after the Rwandan genocide, as wounds are reexamined for traces of healing, new miseries begin to take shape across the African continent. This April, the terror attacks in Kenya and the violence against immigrants in South Africa have unfolded in ways that are shocking in their brutality, but all too familiar in the politics that provoked them. How can we make sense of this violence? How can life continue, amid fresh pains and new precarities when the history that unleashed them looms unperturbed? A deeper reflection on the Rwandan genocide serves as a critical lens through which to understand violence intended to extinguish a group of people colonially construed to be the enemy.
Still from Grey Matter via The Global Film Initiative.
Kivu Ruhorahoza’s film Grey Matter is a poignant take on the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide that presents for us the texture of the devastation and possible strategies to end cycles of violence. The film is a dirge, a lamentation on the complexities of grieving. It is also a story about how both structural and personal violence can be fused to together to manufacture an enemy. The film is as acerbic as it is probing of the vulnerabilities and pains borne of violence that we must carefully interrogate if we are to stop its recurrence.
In this mostly silent film, a young man named Balthazar tries and fails to get government funding for his film, aptly named The Cycle of The Cockroach. The government is more interested in policy-oriented films that filter out the unbearable heaviness of life after the genocide. As Balthazar turns to parlous means to finance his film—depicting filmmaking itself as a casualty of cyclic violence—we are introduced to two seemingly separate stories. One story is about Justine and Yvan, two siblings whose attempts to survive after the genocide are marked by abuse, resilience, and devastation. The other story is about a perpetrator of violence in prison, indoctrinated by guards who speak of their enemies as cockroaches.
The film has been a critical success. It has garnered the best emerging filmmaker award (2011) of the Tribeca Film Festival, the Ecumenical Jury special mention (2011) of Warsaw Film Festival, the Grand Prize of the Tubingen French Film Festival, Best Director and Signis Award of the Cordoba African Film Festival, and the Jury Special Prize of the Khouribga Film Festival in Morocco.
I almost met Kivu Ruhorahoza. I was in Kigali for a few days and I had hoped to meet him for a discussion on this film. We spoke and planned, but Kivu was mired in production work for his next film and our conversation was destined to be virtual. He found time within his sixteen working hour schedule to fit in this conversation and attend to the long windings of my thoughts. His responses were always deliberate, politically engaged, and passionate. Below is our excerpted and edited conversation.
Noosim Naimasiah: Violence seems to me to be a major theme in Grey Matter. Why did you make this film?
Kivu Ruhorahoza: Before I made this film I had several ready-to-shoot projects. All those projects were about people experiencing extreme violence. I went to the Berlinale Talent Campus in Germany in 2009 and met the lady who ended up being my cinematographer on the film. At that time, I pitched another project to her. Then in April, I think, I attended a festival in Mexico City with two of my short films. The festival was cancelled because of the H1N1 flu that broke out. I spent a few days in my hotel room thinking about short films I was failing to shoot (The Cycle of the Cockroach). Then I quickly wrote a short story of a nervous and slightly unstable young director failing to make his film and the whole thing seemed like it could make sense as a feature length film. I told my future cinematographer about this new idea and she liked it and we went for that. It was all a bit accidental, but I guess it was the project I liked the most about violence and trauma.
NN: In what ways are your personal, artistic, and political commitments reflected in its narration?
KR: When I was very young, certainly around 10-12, I remember reading in one novel that every whore was once a virgin. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the book…I’m a pessimistic person. I know that a lot of people are born with the wrong chemistry and violence is a natural part of life. I’m not a religious person so the whole concept of forgiveness is alien to me. So how do we deal with mass murderers? How do we apprehend guilt? How do we deal with trauma? Who is traumatized? I personally believe that both the perpetrator and the survivor are traumatized. Different kinds of trauma though. Nothing is as easy as it seems. Who dares come give life lessons to a female survivor for selling her body? Who is dumb enough to only see evil in the perpetrator’s eyes? And who is this lunatic filmmaker who feels entitled to obtaining a grant? How relevant is his “work of art” for his community? What’s the relevancy of art anyway?
NN: Are you happy with the outcome of the film and its fantastic reception at festivals?
KR: Partially. The film was made in very unusual conditions. I only had 18 days to shoot for a planned 21 days. Murphy’s Law applied and everything that could go wrong went wrong. The result might be okay, but in my position I can only see the extra shot I wasn’t able to get, the extra take I couldn’t allow myself, the location that was denied to me, etc. The reception at festivals was good and I’m very grateful to programmers who gave the film a chance outside of some ghetto section such as “African films” or “Young Directors.”
NN: Grey Matter is a silent film. There is a stillness, a reflectiveness, a quiet homage to pain as it were. It is not interlaced with the musical backgrounds and interludes characteristic of many films on the genocide, and neither is there much speaking from the characters. It is also silent in the way many characters remain unseen and unheard— the person delivering the letter, the jailer, and the shopkeeper. Why is this?
Still from Grey Matter via The Global Film Initiative.
KR: I love dialogue. But good dialogue is a very hard thing to achieve. I feel I can write a decent surreal dialogue, but a dialogue as good as Abdellatif Kechiche or Asghar Farhadi is not that easy. I focus my strengths on getting actors to deliver with as little dialogue as possible. And all my characters are experiencing extreme forms of solitude. Previously, I had wanted to spend a few dollars on a good sound design and get my characters to be even less talkative. The world around them would be ghostly and whispery.
NN: The fact that Rwanda or Kigali is not mentioned at all in the film is another form of silence. One only makes these connections because of the language and the cockroach metaphor. I thought it really insightful in capturing the problem of violence not only in Rwanda, but also in the wider African context, as it is the reality of many people in this continent. Do you think this is one of the things that connect us in this continent; our cycles of violence?
KR: I really hope people believe in these new concepts and narratives of “Africa rising,” “Africa renaissance,”, “Africa emerging”….As I said, I’m a pessimistic kind of person. I shot this film in October 2009 and the film was released in April 2011. Since the film’s release, Mali and Libya have gone from stable nations to countries on the verge of implosion. Nigeria prides itself for being the largest economy in Africa while tens of its citizens die every week. Kenya makes the strangest decisions to deal with its Somali problem and that will affect the entire region. Once the problem with the Arabs from the North is somehow solved, South-Sudanese go for a round of ethnic killings… One county gets stabilized while another one sinks. It’s a cycle and it will remain like that. Why? Because we have decided to outsource our thinking and imagination to religious leaders, corrupt political leaders, dubious community leaders… Education that promotes critical thinking and pragmatism could save us, but I don’t see that happening.
NN: The need for purity and cleanliness is immediately connected to the memory of those who are gone and what is gone, in contradiction to the perversity and brokenness of the life being lived after. Do you think that for some people, all that was hopeful was vanquished by Yvan’s inability to "cope" and the unbearable trauma that seems to constantly haunt him?
KR: The thing about religious belief is that it creates a lifetime dependency. Those people who lost their entire families in churches went back to other versions of the same churches to implore the same God to heal them. There are three aspects to memory: the religious, the political, and the personal. Obviously the survivors will choose to remember publicly when at the end of the conflict they are considered to be on the side of the winner, which is the case for Rwanda. But in Indonesia for example, the survivors of the genocide against the Chinese and the communists didn’t “win” the war. Maybe for those ones all that was hopeful vanquished. In Rwanda, religion and political storytelling really helped people move on and start new lives. One might have reservations on how it was done but the fact is for a large majority of survivors, there seems to be a rather small number of true ghosts who will never recover emotionally from the genocide.
NN: The villain in the prison scene is interesting. Not only does this scene indicate that the dehumanization of indoctrinating people and seeing them as cockroaches is itself a violent process (the imprisonment, the isolation), but that it also produces violence. In a sense, it indicates how both the perpetrator and the survivor are both victims of a violent power structure. This also relates in a way to the doctor who helps Justine with the medicine for her brother, but at an abusive cost. I got the sense that the violence of his sexual exploitation was also intricately laced with a sort of gentleness, a kindness. It reminded me in a way of Toni Morrison’s writings that refuse to create clear victims and villains. Do you think there is a possibility in our political systems to see villains also as victims?
KR: Unfortunately, most politicians are too cynical to try and understand the context in which citizens become perpetrators of mass atrocities. Perpetrators (or villains) are certainly victims of systems—that is all. And survivors are victims of the perpetrators, just to avoid labeling people with the same adjective.
NN: And what will it mean for processes like justice or reconciliation?
KR: Perpetrators of mass atrocities have to face justice. What kind of justice? That is for every country to decide and design according to their own realities. If you have half a million perpetrators on a population of six millions, you can’t jail all of them for 35 years. It’s just counterproductive. One has to be pragmatic and find ways to reintroduce those people in society. But those people have to understand their crimes were of the utmost gravity. Reconciliation is something I don’t like to talk about. If my family had been massacred, I could certainly live next to the killers, but would I reconcile with them? I’m not sure. When you are pragmatic enough and you know that there is so much to lose, like peace, you can calm down and live side by side.
NN: Would you say that religious solace has been a fundamental way through which people have sought psychological healing? I ask this because there is a depiction in the film of the futility of Yvan seeking religious reprieve. Do you have any thoughts on the importance of religion in the post-genocide context?
KR: Religion can certainly bring solace to survivors of major conflicts, but what do we lose in the process? It is just sad to see survivors of major conflicts rebuilding their lives with the help of a pastor only to become strong enough and discriminate other entire groups in society; the sexual minorities, the atheists, the animists…I am not anti-religion, but it is the responsibility of the state to counter any future forms of extremism by educating the population to swallow Bible and Koran with some critical thinking.
Still from Grey Matter via The Global Film Initiative.
NN: "You don’t have the scars," Ivan is told, because he was not there during the genocide even though his sister Justine was present. Ivan is constantly haunted by images of burning bodies, he sees scars that do not exist and he tries to cook raw avocadoes. This was one of the coping strategies of those who were hiding at the time of the genocide. Are you expanding the idea of suffering beyond those who were killed, or those who witnessed it and survived? It is more than just the loss of those who witnessed, as Yvan’s phantom scars seem to indicate. It is also about the anguish of the absence of witnessing, a memory of absence as it were. Is this the case at all?
KR: There is an excellent short film, Waramutseho, by one Kouemo Auguste Bernard that one should see before watching Grey Matter. The film is about two Rwandan students in France during the genocide. Following the entire conflict on the phone and television must have been one of the most traumatizing experiences for those who were abroad. Personally, I was visiting my grandmother in the Western province when the genocide started. A few days later, I got the news that all my family had been found in some ditch, and my sister and mother had been raped before being killed with machetes. I clearly remember that that was the end of my sanity and I would never recover mentally. Luckily, the people hiding my family had been the one spreading that rumor so that militiamen would stop looking for them. Not everyone was lucky as I was though… To this moment, I still have a hard time talking to my siblings and my mother about the genocide. I didn’t live the same experiences as they did. Where I was, it was rather quiet and I didn’t see people being killed.
NN: Grey Matter does not have a chronological narration in the way other films on the genocide do. Memory, acting, and lived reality are produced simultaneously. Is this signaling something about the temporality of pain and the multiple realms it occupies? I was thinking about this because the other films including A Sunday in Kigali, Hotel Rwanda, Shooting Dogs and even Sometimes in April struggle with issues of credibility because they try to give a historical account. What results is that people who have little knowledge about the genocide understand everything presented in these films as an accurate depiction, or those who have intimate knowledge of it are revolted because of the glaring misrepresentations (especially in Shooting Dogs). What sort of artistic license do you think should accompany historical films, especially films of so painful a nature?
KR: Historians, politicians, and filmmakers are all storytellers. They should all master their tools and be able to debate on historic facts in a civil manner. Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs were designed like mainstream products supposed to make money with simplistic narratives. Hotel Rwanda succeeded very well but Shooting Dogs was just so bad. We live in a world where it is never the most honest and the most erudite whose messages get communicated. The loudest, the smartest and the most strategic are competing for attention and winning. For all Holocaust films that were made there are two that are exceptionally powerful. One is Night and Fog, a 32-minute film directed by Alain Resnais in 1955 and Shoah, a 613-minute film directed by Claude Lanzmann and released in 1985. Several mainstream films that were made on the Holocaust get forgotten but these two remain. They are now taught in French schools. When a movie studio produces another film about an African conflict, our governments counterattack with newsletters and press conferences! Filmmakers will always make films about subjects they hardly understand. It is up to our governments to really empower artists and invest in them to give other versions of the story, as long as those stories are devoid of any political agenda for the sake of credibility and durability.
NN: Again, in relation to film as artistic medium, what do you think of raw depictions of violence in films? I was thinking about something very profound that Innocent Rwililiza said about the scarcity of photographs during the genocide in Jean Hatzfelf’s book The Strategy of the Antelopes: Rwanda after the Genocide:
“A genocide must be photographed before the killings to show clearly the preparations, the faces of the leaders, the stockpiled machetes, the complicity of the French soldiers or the Belgian priests, the careful organization of hunting expeditions. In my opinion, pictures of the preambles and the premeditation are the only important ones for allowing foreigners to understand the mechanics of the things.
And the genocide can be photographed afterward - to show the corpses, the survivors haggard faces, the arrogance or shame of the killers, the churches piled high with bones, the events in Congo and Canada, the penitentiaries, the ceremonious foreigners visiting the memorials. To convince disbelieving minds and thwart negationists.
But the intimate truth of the genocide belongs to those who lived it, and so does the right to withhold this truth, for it is not something to be shared by just anyone.”
Do you think that "the intimate truth of the violence belongs to those who lived it"? Do you think that this might be a limitation of film, or rather, an abusive element of it; its voyeuristic eye, perversely exposing an intimacy, revealing what should never be revealed?
Still from Grey Matter via The Global Film Initiative.
KR: They call it a “crime against humanity” for a reason. A genocide should be documented by the largest number of people working in all sorts of sectors. It is dangerous to have opinion leaders in this matter. It is a salutary thing to have the widest debate possible. It is painful but necessary to have as many researchers working on all possible aspects of how a genocide gets implemented. Let us be honest. If you have a fairly uneducated and traumatized population, how do you expect them to give the fullest picture of their tragedy? As for violence, it is necessary to show it on screens as long as it is relevant and done with taste.
NN: I loved Sophie Nzayisenga on the Inanga. Her music is beautiful and powerful. "Traditional" female musicians are generally underrepresented in the music scene in the continent, and also in film. Why did you feature her music? And what do you think of the relationship between music and film? I ask this because sometimes music in a film can give a provocation, or sediment a feeling that the film in silence could not have produced. Does it not sometimes undermine the power of the film, or would this be a puritan view?
KR: Sophie is a friend and I am a big fan of her music. She is the only female inanga player I know of. She might actually be the only one. I asked Sophie to compose one track for me because she simply is talented and could do the job. And her music is so distinctive, so Rwandan. I didn’t want something generic that would have felt out of place. I tried strings, violins and other types of music and it didn’t work out.
Music has to support the overall story. If it is too good and too distracting it becomes a problem. In my opinion, the best use of music and sound design can be seen in Sunless by Chris Marker. The entire film has this background noises and music that never distracts you. It actually helps the viewer feel that they are walking the busy streets of Tokyo. One good thing about cinema is that it is a convergent point of many art forms: music, theatre, sculpture, photography, dance, literature, etc. Being a good director is finding the perfect balance. Music (and dialogue) in Gravity, for example, is such a turn off. The music itself is good when isolated from the film. If you really want to be innovative and original and a little accurate in the entire process, cut the music, cut the noises and let those two characters float in complete silence. One of the taglines of the movie was “In space no one can hear you scream…”
NN: The usual tropes of a Hollywood film, the romance and the happy or hopeful endings are avoided in your film. These two things that have been consistent in all other films about the genocide including Hotel Rwanda, Sometimes in April, A Sunday in Kigali and Shooting Dogs (less so Nick Hughes' 100 Days), to name the more popular ones. In this way, it does not provide for the comfortable audience who came to seek for some history, entertainment and hope. Instead it questions, it probes, it disturbs. It does not provide an internal coherence and a respectful closure that creates the illusion that the end of the film is in fact the end of the genocide. The silence stayed with me long after I had finished watching the film. What audience did you have in mind when you were making this film? Keeping in mind that the audience and market for firstly, films produced by Africans in Africa, and secondly films of your genre do not command a 'profitable market,' at least as yet.
KR: I didn’t think much about the audience because I knew the film would end up being seen by very few individuals in several cities across the world. I am very much aware that movies such as mine are watched by hardcore cinephiles and some other curious individuals who have a connection to the story depicted. What I realized is that when I screened the film abroad, I had audiences understanding the approach and methodology but not getting the story. In Rwanda on the other hand, I had audiences understanding the story but being confused by the approach and methodology. I sort of expected that complicated life for the film. I’m incorrigible, soon I’ll be doing something equally if not more complex.
NN: What has it meant for you to be the first Rwandan to make a feature film on the genocide? You have based your film in Kigali and your actors are all Rwandan, which means many of them are survivors of the genocide. What would you say this means in terms of the different take of the genocide, the relationship people might have with the film, and the politics of representation in general in film as a global medium? I ask this because a close friend is currently doing research on the Gacaca trials, and many people who meet her are happy that she, a black person who is also a survivor is doing it and not them, the white fascinated scholar. Have you had this kind of reception?
KR: The whole “first film by a Rwandan director” was invented by some journalist. It makes me uncomfortable and it’s quite disrespectful of other directors who made films about the genocide. Their films were certainly modest and never made it outside Rwanda but still they were made.
Anyway, my communication with my team was clear: we were making a film about violence and trauma. I didn’t want them to obsess on the idea of delivering something that felt truly Rwandan and something that would please Rwandans. I am not going to lie to you, my film is much more appreciated by western audiences. I’ve sometimes felt that I was being accused of making films that were more muzungu than muzungu films themselves. We are often told that “African films” are supposed to be simplistic and not artistically ambitious. That’s obviously a stupid and dangerous view that is being promoted by some lazy distributors, directors, producers and festival programmers. In my country at least, all other forms of arts, music, decorative art, dance and especially poetry are highly coded, are highly complex and we are used to them being such. Why can’t we be equally demanding and try transpose those levels of sophistication in our cinemas? So, no, there’s no easy communication with my people around my work just because I’m Rwandan.
NN: And finally, what are your thoughts on the politics of the genocide now? At a point in the film, the Map of Rwanda is shown, and as always it provokes a colonial history, a history of exploitation, division and dehumanization. In what ways do you think colonial politics are reflected in the genocide, and do you think the current situation in Rwanda defies this history, is complicit in a different elaboration of it, or has created new ways of construing meaning?
KR: It is true that colonization signaled a new era of rivalry between the groups we now call Hutus and Tutsis. But that rivalry existed before. We can’t blame everything on colonization. In the film, the madman/militiaman sees a video in black and white of white hands making a cockroach omelet assisted by black hands. And when he is being manipulated and prepared he gets rewarded by black hands. When things go worse and he loses the war, he is given a key to open the door by white hands. That was a metaphor for the French Operation Turquoise that allowed those who prepared and executed the genocide to run away from the RPF soldiers who were wining the war.
Now, all people talk about in Rwanda is Hutu and Tutsi. The Twas are even forgotten. Before ethnic identification crystallized around those three groups, we used to belong to 15 clans. I personally wish we had brought them back because those we now call Hutu, Tutsi and Twa can all find themselves in the same clan.
Now, sadly, in Rwanda we talk about pre-colonial times as a long lost paradise. It was all good until “they” came to divide us and rule. That isn’t true, we had our own vices and wickedness. We still have them. They didn’t multiply with the contact of muzungus, they only took another form, that is all. We pretend to fight for some lost authenticity but at the same time we are desperate to appear modern, the western way, which means that we have failed to theorize African modernity.
Noosim Naimasiah is a PhD student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Uganda. Noosim’s work engages with histories and politics within Africa, and views art as a critical lens through which we can see ourselves.
Cover headshot of Kivu Ruhorahoza via Restless Talent Management.