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Jennifer Merin

Anne Aghion's My Neighbor, My Killer Screens For Human Rights on March 21, 2009

By March 20, 2009

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More than nine years in the making, My Neighbor, My Killer is Anne Aghion's monumental documentary about reconciliation in Rwanda following the 1994 genocide of Tutsis by Hutus. The film screens on March 21 at the 13th annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in London, to be followed by a March 29 U.S. debut, fittingly at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage, a Living Memorial to the Holocaust. The New York screening will be followed by a Q&A with Aghion, genocide survivor Jacqueline Murekatete and moderator Lars Waldorf of the University of London.

The film is a cinema verite masterpiece. Aghion's relentless objectivity makes My Neighbor, My Killer the most credible and compelling film to date about the horrors of the Rwanda genocide and its aftermath.

Without showing a single image of the 1994 massacre of Tutsis by Hutus, Aghion uses on camera testimony of Hutu women who were left physically alive but emotionally dead after watching Hutu men--in some cases their blood relations--slaughter their Tutsi husbands, children, husband's parents and siblings, to turn you into a mind's eye witness to the obscene bloodletting that occurred. The women are speaking out in response to the Gacaca Law, an official mandate that all Rwandans--especially those who once were neighbors but who in a moment of madness were divided into the ranks of killers and their devastated victims--reconcile and begin to rebuild their country.

In one hillside village, the victims and killers gather to bear witness before the Gacaca tribunal of Rwandans assigned to pass judgement on the guilty. The villagers sit on the earth and, one by one, surviving women tell their stories about the men who slaughtered their families: "He," says one woman, pointing to a man without looking at him, "took my baby from my back, then threw him down and clubbed his head. He was dead instantly. He killed my seven children. I begged him to cut me, but he refused because he said I was dead already." The camera holds tight on her face, and her simple statement--delivered without tears, rage or histrionics--establishes a more gut-wrenching image in your mind than actual footage of the massacre could deliver.

The camerawork is so gentle, so intimate, it gives you no excuse to turn away. There are no fear or tear-inducing visions to detract from the abject emotionless agony felt by that survivor who now, as she says, walks in the world alone, and by the others--all of whom are being called upon to forgive and move on to rebuild their country.

Aghion's observational approach to the making of this film is exactly right. Rather than orchestrate crescendos and rests, she allows the drama of the reconciliation process to play at its own pace--and the result is absolutely gripping. Even without intimate knowledge of Rwandan politics, we know where the film's characters--the Tutsi women and Hutu men--have got to get to in this story. The reconciliation is mandated. It's the law. But, were Aghion to present this history-making event as a nonfiction courtroom drama, revealing real life plot twists and turns, she'd be missing the story's real thrust--which is how do neighbors and members of the same family who've become mortal enemies embrace each other as neighbors again in the interest of the sanity of the world? And the uniquely theraputic process they've put into effect, made evident through Aghion's directorial restraint and self-discipline, is stunning. Even while you're watching the film, you reflect on other heinous genodical situations--Hindus and Muslims, Shiites and Sunnis, Israelis and Palestinians and, well, Bloods and Cryps, and all the rest--and think if the Rwandans can realize reconciliation, why can't we all?

My Neighbor My Killer is a mightly powerful lesson for a world that desperately needs peace and healing. Leaders of nations large and small, and those who command warring factons everywhere should be mandated to see it. Whether you fit into one of those categories or not, you should see it, too. Be on the lookout for future screenings.

Read my full review.

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