Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Earth Made of Glass

Only the second country to join the Commonwealth that was not a former British territory, Rwanda has also changed its official language from French to English. This de-Francophonization of the former Belgian colony was not an accident. Information has recently come to light suggesting France’s partial culpability in the 1994 genocide, causing a major rift between the nations. In lieu of justice, the search for truth takes on paramount importance for two very different Rwandans in Deborah Scranton’s documentary Earth Made of Glass (trailer here), which premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Glass’s title is both obscure and inapt. It refers to the Emerson quote: “Commit a crime and the Earth is made of glass.” However, under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, Rwanda has foregone formal criminal prosecutions of the Hutu genocide of the minority Tutsis. Instead, survivors like Jean Pierre Sagahutu must console themselves with the truth, as determined by informal community-based courts. Hardly a fugitive scrambling to hide on an Earth of glass, the man who murdered Sagahutu’s father lives openly without fear of legal repercussions.

Perhaps as a result of international guilt, Kigali is Africa’s reining boom town, swelling with foreign investment. It has also been extraordinarily stable, considering its recent history. In large measure, this is due to Kagame’s policies, which have discouraged retribution and banned ethnic identification on government documents. Tellingly, both Kagame and Sagahutu call themselves Rwandan instead of Tutsi, proclaiming their national identity rather than asserting a sense of ethnic aggreivement.

The one area of turbulence for the Kagame government has been its foreign relations with France. Shortly after Kagame released documents outlining the collusion of Mitterand’s Socialist government with the former ruling Hutus leading up to and during the genocide, France arrested top Kagame aide Rose Kabuye on dubious terrorism charges, while on a formal state visit.

Glass is practically two movies shoehorned into one, but they are both very compelling, so it works out quite well regardless. The segments with Kagame are truly eye-opening, but the exact nature of the French involvement should have been more clearly detailed. However, he comes across as a genuinely humane and forward-thinking leader. It is Sagahutu’s story though, that packs the emotional punch, as he seeks closure when finally confronting his father’s killer face-to-face.

Scranton captures every intimate detail of Sagahutu’s difficult homecoming, including the evil banality of the likely murderer. She also relies on many interview sequences with him and Kagame, filmed with vivid clarity by cinematographer P.H. O’Brien against vibrant white backgrounds. As a result, what could have been rather straightforward talking-head segments lend the film a surprisingly interesting visual aesthetic.

Earth Made of Glass is a terrible title, but it is a great film. While there have been several well received documentaries on the 1994 genocide, Scranton finds fresh material to mine. Heartfelt and informative, it is one of the best documentaries at Tribeca this year. It screens again Friday (4/30) and Saturday (5/1).