27 April 2007

Sometimes in April

I've found hardly any reviews of Sometimes in April, a film about the Rwandan genocide written and directed by Raoul Peck and released by HBO in 2005, and it was purely by luck that I stumbled upon it through Netflix. There are aesthetic problems with the movie -- clunky dialogue, wooden acting, convoluted narrative -- that make it less satisfying than Hotel Rwanda, but it's still better than much of what fills the screens of the world, and it has a number of virtues that a good and fluent film like Hotel Rwanda lacks, as well as virtues not available through a documentary.

First, it's important to note that none of the flaws of Sometimes in April carry through the entire 140 minutes of the movie. Most of the major actors have at least a few moments of sensitive, subtle acting, and Idris Elba, Pamela Nomvete, Carole Karemera in particular all seemed to navigate between the moments of awkward writing and the re-enactment of horrific events with more grace than not, and sometimes with sublime poignancy. The most embarrassing scenes are ones involving bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. -- Debra Winger is simply awful as Prudence Bushnell , and the other actors are worse, like animatronic commediadell'arte caricatures.

Sometimes in April
tells the story of two Hutu brothers, one of whom, Augustin (Elba), is a soldier married to a Tutsi woman (Karemera); the other, Honoré (Oris Erhuero), is a radio commentator famous for his incendiary, anti-Tutsi remarks. The story moves back and forth between 2004, when Augustin is trying to move on with his life and Honoré is in prison, and 1994, when Augustin's family is destroyed by the genocidaires. Interwoven into this central narrative strand is the story of Martine (Nomvete), a teacher who lives through the atrocities and eventually becomes Augustin's companion, and scenes of Bushnell trying to convince somebody -- anybody! -- in Washington that the killings in Rwanda were worth doing something to stop.

One of the greatest virtues of Sometimes in April is that is manages to convey so much without being either more incoherent or more didactic than it is. Over and over again, this is a movie that portrays complex events and ideas through imagery and characters. Sometimes it stumbles, certainly, but the task Peck has set for himself, his actors, and his crew is one that is nearly impossible -- an honest and accurate portrayal of the Rwandan genocide through a fictional story for a general, and probably uninformed, audience. There are scenes of brutality and scenes of beauty, and Peck pays particular interest to characters' faces: their expressions, their dignity, their eyes. Hotel Rwanda is a more structurally satisfying film mostly because it doesn't try to do nearly as much as Sometimes in April; I don't mean that as criticism of the former so much as praise for the ambition and, indeed, accomplishment of the latter.

Peck is an admirable director and writer in that he seems determined to tell African stories from an African point of view. His Lumumba is a thoughtful portrait of Patrice Lumumba, the first (and ill-fated) prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sometimes in April is a more epic movie, less focused on one person, and with much more material to synthesize.

Hotel Rwanda
is notable not the least for being a major feature that doesn't overly concern itself with white people, which makes it a rare sort of movie, because usually films -- the ones financed by Hollywood, certainly -- don't get off the ground unless they show some whites expressing their basic goodness or discovering their inner morality (usually accompanied by an at-least-quasi-magical negro or secular African saint).* Hotel Rwanda, though, was mostly filmed in South Africa, while Sometimes in April was actually filmed in Rwanda, and many of the actors and much of the crew were Rwandan.

Sometimes in April should -- and does -- stand on its own, but I compare it here to the better-known Hotel Rwanda, not because I think either movie owes anything to the other, but because the comparison seems to reveal strengths, weaknesses, and differences of both films. Sometimes in April is more explicitly critical of the U.S., and it makes no criticism of the Tutsis or Paul Kagame (who denounced Hotel Rwanda) -- thus, the political implications of the two movies are different, despite their shared subject matter and setting. Sometimes in April is, very much, a political film (though not only that); Hotel Rwanda seems to me to be more of a celebration of its protagonist and his triumph, an ultimately uplifting story in amidst one of the most horrific moments of the horror-filled 20th Century, and political only to the extent that no story about the Rwandan genocide can avoid being suffused with politics. Sometimes in April is not uplifting; it is infuriating, devastating, and immensely sad, even as its characters try to learn, in the end, how to move on with their lives. The difference is the difference between, for instance, Schindler's List and either The Pianist or Fateless (although I think Hotel Rwanda is better than Schindler's List [about which I agree with Zizek] and Sometimes in April doesn't have the same strong writing, acting, and filmmaking as The Pianist and Fateless).

All of which is just a very long and tangential way of saying: Sometimes in April, though not perfect, is a film very much worth seeing, and one that deserves a large audience.

*An exception: Catch a Fire, though somewhat disappointing in its execution, at least focused more on the complexities of its black protagonist than the moral education of its primary white character, played by Tim Robbins. But Catch a Fire seems to have been a mostly European production, and although it was distributed by Universal in the U.S., overall it appears to have been a financial failure, which is unfortunate -- not only because it's a whole lot better than most of the top grossers of 2006, but because its financial failure just gives movie executives an excuse to ignore films about Africans in Africa.