Norman Abrasion: Aki Kaurismäki’s northern France fable is pretty painful.
Norman Abrasion: Aki Kaurismäki’s northern France fable is pretty painful.

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In Kinyarwanda, a boy no more than 4 or 5 is sent to a merchant to buy his father cigarettes. He comes across a rogue militia, its members shouting about guns and where to find the “cockroaches.” They’re Rwandan Hutus, and they’re talking about the country’s other principle ethnic group, the Tutsis. The boy says he knows where the weapons and roaches are—and brings the gunmen to his home, where he pops in a violent movie. “There are the guns,” he says, pointing to the TV. “And there are the cockroaches.” Yes, there are bugs skittering across the floor.

His parents are terrified, but the militiamen just leave. Others are not so lucky in this Crash-like drama about the 1994 Rwandan genocide from first-time writer-director Alrick Brown, though the squeamish needn’t worry. The film—the first dramatic feature made entirely by Rwandans—is more about healing strife than exacerbating it, and Brown rarely shows bloodshed. Instead he tells six intermingling mini-tales based on true stories.

The character you’ll remember most is Jean (Hadidja Zaninka), a sweet young woman who’s enthusiastically received when she arrives at a party. Her sometimes-beau Patrique, played by Marc Gwamaka, serenades her with “Islands in the Stream.” When Patrique walks her home late at night, they encounter a militia with guns trained on kneeling Tutsis. They’re waved off, but when Jean arrives at home, the house is a bit too quiet. She wanders around in excruciating silence, a smile on her face from the night’s festivities. Then she finds her parents dead.

We’ll see Jean again, both in the present (retreating to a mosque to hide with other refugees) and in a flashback (her parents, one Tutsi and the other Hutu, were arguing as she was leaving for a party, and forbid her to go). But there are other characters of note: “Brother Cockroach” (Kennedy Mpazimpaka), a particularly hated and hunted Catholic priest. The Mulsim leader (Jean Mutsari) who opens his mosque to the refugees and has an interesting conversation with his Christian peer about how neither religion can be celebrated or vilified, for there are good people and bad people who subscribe to each. A “re-education camp” in which Hutus admit to their crimes and ask for forgiveness. Their stories, brief as they are, are some of the most powerful, with each participant confessing his “number”—that is, how many people he’s killed.

It’s probably best to know some history going in. But what’s perfectly clear is the nightmare that enveloped this country for 100 days and claimed 800,000 lives. Brown succeeds in giving faces to these figures—quite strikingly, in fact, with tightly framed shots that capture characters’ every expression, and a wavering camera that reflects the period’s volatility. Whatever you know of the genocide when Kinyarwanda starts, Brown ensures that his snapshot is a powerful one.