22 October 2009

My Neighbor, My Killer

This documentary by filmmaker Anne Aghion (another Chicago International Film Festival screening) examines Rwanda as it recovers from years of genocide. It documents the system of informal, community-based justice--gacaca--that is being used to help reconcile Rwandans to their horrific past. While the very biggest offenders continue to be dealt with by Rwanda's formal justice system, the Rwandan government has implemented the gacaca system to deal with less serious criminals, based on the rationale that it doesn't help anyone for a huge proportion of the population to languish in jail--provided room and board on the public dime.

But it's crucial to recognize that these "less serious" criminals are only less serious in the context of widespread genocide. Often, the people being dealt with in gacaca are still mass murderers, or facilitators of mass murder. The documentary identifies the goals of the gacaca: that the accused will acknowledge, explain, and ask forgiveness for his crimes from the community; that the community has its say; that there is reconciliation, and the accused rejoins the community.

It sounds beautiful, but--as Aghion documents--it is easier said than done. We see several of the accused insisting on their innocence even when multiple witnesses identify them. More often, we see men (for only accused men are shown) admitting to lesser crimes, insisting they did their best; they didn't know, they were afraid...the Nuremberg defense.

In short, the process is less than satisfying. But Aghion allows us to see how the community seems to survive anyhow. Rwanda comes across as a gorgeous country; it is hard to reconcile past atrocities with the verdant scenery.

This beautifully done documentary is evidence of how we can really survive anything, if we have to.

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