My Neighbor, My Killer, a new movie about the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, is winning high praise from critics, and filling houses at film festivals. Agence-France Presse calls it "superbly shot" and "a historic document of incalculable value." At the 2009 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Lincoln Center in New York City, director Anne Aghion received the Nestor Almendros courage in filmmaking award, recognizing her decade of work documenting Rwanda’s painful struggle towards a new beginning.
My Neighbor, My Killer, like director Anne Aghion's three earlier Rwanda films, is set in a rural community, Gafumba, where Hutu killers and Tutsi survivors must live together again. She began filming six years after the 1994 genocide when more than 800,000 people were murdered.
"Certainly, at the beginning I didn't realize what I was embarking on, or how hard it would be, or how long it would take," Aghion said of the nearly ten years she spent documenting the reconciliation process called Gacaca, a system of open-air community trials where victims testified and killers were judged.
Everyone understood the necessity of Gacaca, Aghion said, to help Rwanda rebuild and survive.
"It's a very densely populated country, the plots of land are very small, and people see each other every day, all the time, they cross each other going to get water at the well, or going to plow their fields or whatever, and they just have to rely on each other so much," she said.
Most of the survivors of the genocide who speak in the film are women, including Hutu women who were married to Tutsi men. "So they don't fit anywhere," Aghion said. "They're not embraced by survivors as being one of them, and they're often rejected by their own families. Certainly when the killings happened, in some cases it was people from their family who did the killing, and massacred their husbands and children."
Sitting in her small house, Annonciata Mukanyonga tells the filmmakers how almost every other Tutsi in her community was killed, including her husband and children.
"Everyone was fleeing and dying alone," she says. "When I had nowhere left to turn, I returned here to perish. That's when they killed my children, even the baby off my back. And they said, 'Leave her alone, she is sadness incarnate. She will die of sorrow.'"
When the women face the killers at the Gacaca hearings, they don't ask for vengeance, only for the truth. The men on trial try to minimize their role in the genocide, but must accept the verdict of the judges. Many have already been jailed for years, and are allowed now to return to the community. Aghion says most didn't strike her as remorseful. But, she said, "Some are more sort of stone-faced than others. And some of them you get a sense that they might be reintegrated into society, that the group might be able to pull them back in."
Aghion says she isn't sure how successful the Gacaca hearings will be, or if the urge towards ethnic genocide will ever recur in Rwanda.
"It's too early to tell whether the Gacaca are going to work over the long term, whether time is taking its course and things are just calmer in people's hearts and minds," she said. "I just hope this film is seen widely and that it helps a little bit in bringing about conversation and discussion around issues of coexistence."
Towards that end, Aghion, who lives in New York, she says will soon take My Neighbor, My Killer to Rwanda, as she has her previous films about Gacaca, to show to the people she interviewed, and other Rwandans.