My Neighbor My Killer. Directed by Anne Aghion. New York: Anne Aghion Films, 2009. 80 minutes.
Gacaca: Living Together again in Rwanda? Directed by Anne Aghion. New York: Anne Aghion Films, 2002. 55 minutes.
Anne Aghion has produced two excellent films on the social relationships and political complexities of justice and reconciliation in postgenocide Rwanda. Working on these projects for over a decade in the same rural village, Aghion carefully explores the personal and practical challenges of pursuing “mass justice for mass atrocity.”1 Both films lay bare the hardships and sorrows of survivors of the genocide and the magnitude of the task they face to rebuild their lives. The role of perpetrators is captured in raw form, with some showing no remorse for their crimes and others asking for forgiveness. Others still blamed the state for orchestrating the killing, saying they should not be imprisoned for what they were told to do.
My Neighbor My Killer is a feature-length, reflective film that starkly illustrates the challenges of living together again after genocide. Unlike Aghion’s earlier production of Gacaca: Living Together Again in Rwanda, My Neighbor provides a panoramic yet intimate view of life since the Gacaca courts opened in 2001. Sweeping rural vistas sit in contrast to intimate shots of survivors talking about how they struggle to live next door to those who killed their loved ones. Texturing this moment in time are the ever-present realities of daily life: grinding poverty, overbearing local officials, a subtle military presence, and fractured social relationships.
Gacaca is a shorter, more classroom-friendly film. It is sparsely narrated, providing invaluable visual context for viewers. Similar to My Neighbor, it reflects an overarching commitment to hearing Rwandans in their own words, revealing the practical complexities of the Gacaca process and the lilting flow of the Kinyarwanda language. The role of judges is more fully considered, allowing viewers to see the ways in which the administration of justice has involved the entire country. Layperson judges who grew up in each Gacaca jurisdiction adjudicate cases. Survivors accuse, perpetrators defend themselves without a lawyer present, the community murmurs in agreement or discord with the testimony provided. Local officials sometimes cajole participation of all community members. The Gacaca law requires survivors, perpetrators, witnesses, and bystanders to take part. Judges weigh the evidence, handing out or commuting sentences under the guidance of Ministry of Justice officials.
It is well known that in April 1994 ethnic Hutu militias and members of the presidential guard committed acts of genocide, ultimately murdering some 500,000 ethnic Tutsi before the rebel-turned-government Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took control of State House in July 1994. Therefore, the films could explore in more depth the conflict’s brutality as well as a sense of the ordinariness of the Hutu men who participated in the killing. They are husbands, fathers, neighbors. Some killed enthusiastically. Most had to be prompted to kill. Others killed to settle personal scores. Because both films do not fully examine the actual crimes that the Gacaca courts are designed to try, I suggest two excellent classroom companions to provide context while explaining individual motivations to kill or not. Lee Ann Fujii analyzes the social and political relationships that incentivized ordinary men to kill, whereas Scott Straus highlights the role of government authorities in creating the conditions for genocide in making it the law of the land in 1994.2
Both films also fail to adequately explain why the current government chose the Gacaca courts as its preferred postgenocide justice tool. Instituted in 2001 and closed in 2012, the courts tried over 1.8 million cases in the largest postconflict justice experiment in the world. The Rwandan government has earned international praise and donor dollars for its ability to deliver swift, culturally appropriate rulings. Yet academics have critically analyzed the function of the courts, finding that they did not accomplish the promise of justice and reconciliation for all. In this vein, either film could productively be paired with the work of Anuradha Chakravarty or Bert Ingaleare 3 These authors have spent years talking to Rwandans about the promise and perils of the gacaca courts. Both provide useful insights for teachers wanting to compare the Rwandan case to other community-based postconflict justice initiatives that the international community wants to fund.
In sum, Aghion’s perceptive editing, commitment to narrative storytelling, and love for the Rwandan people provide richly intimate but never voyeuristic tales of the blurry truths, inconsolable fears, and mundane defenses that are the Gacaca process.
1 Lars Waldorf, “Mass Justice for Mass Atrocity: Rethinking Local Justice as Transitional Justice,” Temple Law Review 79, no. 1 (2006): 1-87.
2 Lee Ann Fujii, Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009); Scott Straus, The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).
3 Anuradha Chakravarty, Investing in Authoritarian Rule: Punishment and Patronage in Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts for Genocide Crimes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Bert Ingelaere, Inside Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts: Seeking Justice after Genocide (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016).