Fast on the heels of Munyurangabo’s brief New York run comes Anne Aghion’s My Neighbor, My Killer, a documentary that, like Lee Isaac Chung’s fictional film, examines the legacy of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. What the movies have in common is that, while directed by outsiders (Chung is Korean-American, Aghion French-American), both scrupulously avoid the glossy reductivism of higher-budget American productions that tend to render historical atrocity both overly familiar (because of recognizable genre tropes) and comfortably distant (because a lack of immediacy). While Chung uses local actors, films in the Kinyarwanda language, and confines the bulk of the action to a single local setting, Aghion deliberately avoids making concessions to viewers unfamiliar with the conflict and, with the exception of a few brief radio snippets, provides very little contextualizing information. Despite the films’ weaknesses (in Munyurangabo, a last-minute plot development that seems to absolve the protagonist of having to kill, in My Neighbor a fragmented fly-on-the-wall perspective that, while illuminating, also risks a certain amount of confusion), what is at stake in the two projects is a new authenticity lacking from other Western treatments of the genocide, a respect for the Rwandan people and an understanding of the ways in which tragedy must give way to reconciliation in order for the devastated nation to continue.
Reconciliation is the watchword for the villagers in My Neighbor whether they like it or not. Aghion’s video feature, her third project to treat the aftermath of the genocide, tracks the implementation of Gacaca, a unique judicial process instituted by the Rwandan government designed to force an understanding between victim and perpetrator, as it unfolds in a single village. A collection of filmed fragments taken over several years, My Neighbor begins with the release of several alleged war criminals from prison and their return to their native village where they live side-by-side with their victims. Then after eliding several years of (at least hypothetical) reintegration, Aghion films the villages holding open air trials in which townspeople stand up and directly confront the alleged murderers of their husbands and children.
Although the director takes a deliberately nonjudgmental approach, the trial process as it’s presented seems of at least questionable efficacy. In the first stage, the returned prisoners mostly avoid contact with the victims and, in the second, mostly deny their direct involvement in atrocity. Along the way Aghion captures some revealing moments of conflict—a gathering in a makeshift bar in which victims sit beside an alleged perpetrator uneasily sharing a beer, the entire concluding trial sequence in which the words of the victims ring out with enough measured outrage to counter the defendants’ weak denials—which speak more to the difficulty of reconciliation than to its possibility, or even desirability. If ultimately the work’s fragments—like the Gacaca process itself—fail to fully cohere, then the project’s privileged look into a unique experiment makes it at least valuable as a document in our ongoing understanding of the lasting implications of genocide.
My Neighbor, My Killer premieres June 20 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2009. Click here for screening information.