With its language-related title and collection of seemingly disparate sections that slowly merge into one larger story, Kinyarwanda—its name taken from the official dialect of Rwanda—could be compared to Babel. But that wouldn’t be nice. Nor would it be accurate. Until it takes on a more concrete shape in the final couple reels, this, the latest docudrama on the 1994 slaughter of some 100 million Tutsis by Hutu militia, boasts a winningly fragmented structure. It’s less Babel than 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, complete with a brief animated interlude; think of it as 32 Short Films About the Rwandan Genocide.
We’re first introduced to two young lovers: half-Tutsi Jeanne Zaninka Hadidja) and her Hutu boyfriend Patrique (Marc Gwamaka). Before this Romeo and Juliet in Rwanda narrative has a chance to play out, writer-director Alrick Brown cuts to black, opening back up in a re-education camp years after the catastrophe. As Kinyarwanda leaps around its timeline, we will meet a hunted Christian priest (Mazimpaka Kennedy), a female lieutenant (Cassandra Freeman) trying to do her part to stop the genocide and a young child (Hassan Kabera) who unwittingly aids the enemy by assuming that when they speak of “cockroaches” they mean actual cockroaches.
As with most unspeakable atrocities, filmmakers tend to cover the Rwandan Genocide by compartmentalizing it, whittling down its 100 days of unspeakable acts to one noble person’s perspective. Ultimately Kinyarwanda does nearly the same thing; we eventually learn the sections we’ve been watching form one major, randomly chosen story. The closer Kinyarwanda comes to coherence, the smaller and less mysterious it becomes, complete with lessons on tolerance that could stand more fleshing out. At its best, which is most of the time, it conveys loads: how a nation of multiple major religions comes together amidst tragedy, how two ethnicities were brought to a head by a bizarre history involving Belgian imperialists, and what one’s life is like in a land that, to all appearances, is imploding. “Why don’t we go to the Hotel Rwanda—it’s safe there,” someone suggests at one point. Watching the film Hotel Rwanda is safer, too, filled with the easy comforts Kinyarwanda almost entirely, heroically, avoids.