Sometimes In April (2005)
Starring: Idris Elba, Debra Winger, Carole Karemara, Pamela Nomvete, Michelle Rugema, Noah Emmerich
Directed by: Raoul Peck
Sometimes In April is an HBO film (currently showing if you get HBO, which I don't, but managed to catch on Movie Central HD) detailing the Rwandan genocide of 1994. As it is the second Rwandan genocide movie I've seen this year (following 2004's Hotel Rwanda), comparisons between the two films are unavoidable.
Both are hauntingly powerful accounts of the unimaginable horrors that took place a mere eleven years ago. Each film is ambitious in its attempt to reveal the senselessness that gripped the tiny African nation, and graphically depicts the hell that descended upon it, leading the slaughter of over 800,000 Tutsis and sympathetic Hutus in only 100 days. Both films feature casts largely made up of actors unknown to North American audiences (only Debra Winger and Noah Emmerich were familiar to me, each of whom had smaller parts).
Sometimes In April wasn't as dramatic as was Hotel Rwanda, which has been accused of playing up certain situations merely to build suspense and manipulate the audience. In fact, some of the drama in the narrative of Sometimes In April is taken away at the very beginning of the film, which shows our protagonist, Augustin (Idris Elba), in Rwanda circa 2004, reflecting back ten years to the time of the killings. This opening act establishes that he and his new lover survive the tragedy, as does his brother who is currently standing trial for his part in the genocide as a radio journalist who helped incite and guide the militia through the slaughter. We also find out that Augustin's wife and children did not survive the genocide. From a narrative standpoint, this lessons the drama his family later faces in the telling of the past, as the audience knows that they will not survive their ordeals, and he will. The emotional impact is still there, as the sadness and horror of the event is not dulled by the predetermined nature of the events, but the suspense is eliminated.
There are scenes in this movie that are incredibly difficult to watch, surpassing Hotel Rwanda and even Schindler's List in their stark portrayal of brutality. Unlike in Hotel Rwanda, the slaughter in Sometimes In April does not appear off screen. The camera picks it up in wide shots of city streets, and features it prominently in others. Director Raoul Peck is sensitive to make sure the violence in the film is not done for sensationalistic reasons, but rather to reveal how truly atrocious the killings truly were. In particular, the scene inside the Catholic school will haunt me for some time to come.
Unfortunately, in trying to cover many aspects of the tragedy, Peck makes some sacrifices in the overall narrative that hurt the film. The sub-plot revealing America's non-involvement was interesting, but unfocused and unnecessary. One gets the feeling that those scenes were added to get American actors into the film, and to damn the U.S. for turning its back while Africans died at rates of up to 8,000 a day. While the U.S. does have its part of the blame to share, particularly with their unwillingness to jam the radio signals that helped organise the killings, the film fails to spread the blame to rest of the world, other than implicit blame directed toward the French for their role as sympathisers and allies to the Tutsis (history really does repeat itself, huh?). Another subplot involving a woman testifying in front of the war crimes tribunal about the gang-raping she and other Rwandan women suffered isn't given the time necessary to fit into the film's narrative structure. It is an important story about the atrocities committed, but feels rushed and underdeveloped.
The stories and horrors to come out of this event are too numerous and involved to try and capture through one film. That is why it is important to focus on one character, or a small group of related characters, to guide the viewer through the movie. For the most part, Sometimes In April does this, it is when it veers off track that the film trips up. As an educational tool, the film glosses over a lot of information in its attempt to show too many sides of the story. Had I not already seen Hotel Rwanda and begun reading Lt. General Roméo Dallaire's autobiography Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, I would have found myself confused at many points in the movie. Oddly, the movie assumes that the viewer will already possess a good deal of knowledge about Rwanda, even though the film itself cleverly shows us that while it was going on, the western world was more focused on the death of Kurt Cobain and the controversy involving Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.
Therefore, while I found this to be a powerful and important film, and recommend others view it, I recommend that you watch Hotel Rwanda first if you are unfamiliar with the details and issues that took place in 1994. Then, for another side of the story, watch Sometimes In April.