In a series of up-close testimonies survivors of the Rwandan genocide tell their stories in Eric Kabera's film 'Keepers of Memory.
Published: Thursday, February 02, 2006
The only thing we have is big people making statements. It would be very wrong for me to stand here and say, 'They are healing.'
In Rwanda, 800,000 people—up to 1 million by some estimates—were killed in 100 days in 1994. The survivors' stories are chronicled in Eric Kabera's film, "Keepers of Memory." Kabera answered questions about his film after a Jan. 27 screening by the African Studies Center in UCLA's Moore Hall.
Several audience members wanted to hear about how things are getting better in Rwanda. One asked how the survivors live, if there is ever any healing for them.
Kabera did not offer a silver lining: 12 years after the genocide, in which extremist Hutu militias targeted Tutsis and moderate Hutus, Rwandans still suffer. While the country now has a functioning government and has abolished the use of these ethnic identities, no one has paid reparations to the victims' families. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and the United Nations have since admitted that they failed to intervene in a genocide they knew was taking place, but neither the U.S. government nor the UN is providing substantial aid to the small nation that lost nearly a tenth of its population in three months.
The world, Kabera said, is still failing Rwanda. Survivors need money for medical care and education. "The only thing we have is big people making statements," Kabera said. "It would be very wrong for me to stand here and say, 'They are healing.'"
Kabera too lost family members in the genocide: aunts, uncles, and a 90-year-old grandfather. He was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but his parents grew up in Rwanda, and the family returned to their home country at the end of the massacre. In 1994, Kabera formed Link Media Production (Flash required). As a radio broadcaster trained by the Reuters Foundation in London, he began to work as a translator and producer for journalists from major media outlets such as the BBC, ABC, and the New York Times. Kabera's mission at the time was to help create genocide stories for international audiences.
After several years, Kabera says, he felt like he was carrying something huge but was not sure what to do with it. He was passionate about telling the survivors' stories but still kept a professional distance, until the two impulses began to clash.
"The genocide kind of absorbed me," he says. The international media attention did not seem to be making a difference. So Kabera began creating his own films, including "100 Days," his first feature-length film about the genocide.
Still, he felt he was not capturing the pain that the violence and killings had left behind. International reports talked about 1994 but did not give voice to survivors as they live today. "Keepers of Memory" was his attempt to understand the current situation. "Suffering is not then," he explained in a telephone interview. "It's now."
"Keepers of Memory" is a series of up-close testimonies by survivors. They show their homes and, in difficult-to-watch scenes, places where their loved ones were murdered. History and politics take a back seat to individuals' stories.
"The whole film," Kabera explains, "explores the theme of life after death. Can you live after genocide?"
In one of the first scenes of the film, a young girl named Liliane stands over the remains of a killing site. She has recognized her mother's clothes amidst the bones and debris. Another woman says her neighbors have told her to cover the large scars on her face and neck. She refuses because the deformities show she survived being beaten and dragged from her home. "It was as though I had died many times," she recalls.
Kabera (left) said that the survivors live without really living. They lead empty lives, just moving through each day. This emptiness comes across throughout the film: survivors live near their slain families and call themselves "the living dead." Five thousand skulls and skeletons cover the floor of what was once a church. An elderly man stands over them imagining which could be his six children and mother. "I am like a log with no feelings anymore," he says.
One man who lost his father and brother to militia attackers stays on the hill where the battle occurred, never putting down the spear that he says saved his life. He seems strong and sure of himself but says, "We laugh without really laughing."
There is no magic remedy for these people. "Healing just takes time," Kabera said. "And the survivors know it."
The "Keepers of Memory" DVD, including Kabera's commentary, a photo gallery, and lesson plan for teachers, was released in September and is available from Choices, Inc. Kabera also founded the Rwanda Cinema Center, a four-year-old organization that trains Rwandans to create their own visual media and hosts an annual film festival. Kabera's next film, called "Through My Eyes," is about the way Rwandan children envision their futures.
Both Kabera and a representative of the Dafur Action Committee (DAC) spoke to the audience about preventing genocide from happening again. DAC is fighting for University of California divestment from companies that invest in Sudan. Killings in Darfur have reached an estimated 400,000 since 2003, violence the U.S. Congress has labeled acts of genocide.