Breaking down walls by building them: victims, perpetrators, and the work of RwandanStories

The JHC Film Club, a series of film screenings on the Holocaust, other genocides, and human rights issues held monthly at the Jewish Holocaust Centre, has been home to some unique and truly remarkable evenings. The value of these experiences lies not only in the quality of the films we are fortunate enough to be able to screen, but perhaps even more so in the presentations by guest speakers and their interactive discussions with the audience.

Yoram Gross, pictured with Warren Fineberg, Executive Director of the JHC (used with permission of the Jewish Holocaust Centre)
Yoram Gross (left), pictured with Warren Fineberg, Executive Director of the Jewish Holocaust Centre
(Used with permission of the JHC)

One recent event included a screening of Blinky & Me (2011), preceded by a Skype interview with the film’s director Thomas Magierski in New York and followed by a discussion with the highly influential children’s animator Yoram Gross. The documentary revealed (for the first time on the screen) how Gross’ work, which has had a major impact on Australian national identity, is indelibly linked to his experiences as a Polish Jew during the war. Another 2013 screening focused on the award-winning film Misa’s Figue (2012), an impressive collaborative effort of teachers and students from a high school in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, that tells the traumatic story of Frank Grunwald, a survivor of several concentration camps. A live online discussion with director Sean Gaston and producer Jennifer Goss revealed how the innovative film involved student participation in creating visuals, editing, and musical scoring, and raises many interesting issues regarding how younger generations might be brought closer to Holocaust history in the present.

To say one film screening is more powerful than another misses the point, as the films differ markedly in subject matter and each participant takes something different from the experience. Nonetheless, one evening that had a particularly deep impact on me which I wanted to reflect on here was the screening of As We Forgive (2010). This film explores the traumatic aftermath of genocide in Rwanda, a subject about which I (to my shame) know very little about. Issues of revenge, forgiveness, and justice continue to permeate a country in which the government returned over 50,000 perpetrators back to the very communities they helped to destroy. As the film shows, this situation frequently brings survivors face-to-face with the person(s) who killed members of their families. In many cases, former perpetrators attempt to make amends for their past behaviour – at least to whatever extent possible given the extreme circumstances (I’m uncomfortable using the word ‘reconciliation’ here, particularly given the Christian connotations of the term and the Catholic Church’s complicity in the genocide). Bridging metaphor and reality, many former killers help to build mud brick houses for victims. As We Forgive depicts this complex situation with nuance and respect, and is in many ways an intriguing film. The effect on the audience was both obvious and profound, yet the highlight of the evening for me (and I’m sure for many others) was the post-film discussion with Dave Fullerton and Sally Morgan.

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Having just stepped off the plane from his most recent trip to Rwanda, Dave Fullerton gave a stunning speech that provided insights into Rwandan society and culture that can only come from someone who has ‘been there’. Intensely personal and oftentimes moving, Dave gave the audience a glimpse into the everyday lives of a people whose remarkable dignity, fortitude, and resilience, enable them to approach something that might be considered ‘recovery’. Dave noted in his speech that ‘because relationships and community are so important to Rwandans… most of them have got on board fairly quickly with the idea that Rwanda should be a home again for all Rwandans’. Dave works as a researcher, writer, editor, camera operator, filmmaker, graphic artist, and web designer for the award-winning RwandanStories project. After Dave’s stirring speech, Sally Morgan, a teacher and curriculum developer from the project, joined Dave for an engaging discussion with the audience.

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Alisa in 'A day in the marshes', Rwandan Stories
Alisa in ‘A day in the marshes’, Rwandan Stories
(Used with permission of Dave Fullerton)

The RwandanStories website contains twenty remarkable short films on the genocide and broader history of Rwanda, drawing on firsthand interviews with survivors – many of whom had lost all members of their families to the mass killings. In one film, Alisa tells of barely surviving in the marshes of the Nyabarongo river as perpetrators of the genocide surrounded her. After her baby was murdered while being carried on her back, Alisa escaped to hide among the papyrus trees: ‘Every day in the swamp many teams of killers would come looking for people to kill… they knew we were hiding there. Every day we jumped over corpses to escape from them’. Connected with RwandanStories is Vanishing Point, a small social enterprise working in mainstream education to provide curriculum support to teachers and students in relation to Rwanda. These inspirational projects underline just how much can be done by so few, and, like the ongoing efforts of the JHC, reveal how fundamental they are to the continued remembrance and education of genocide in the twenty-first century.

Please contact the Jewish Holocaust Centre or visit the website for full screening details, or email me (abrown@deakin.edu.au) to join the JHC Film Club mailing list.

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