Above: Rwandan Soldiers and commercial sex workers in the Gisagara HIV-Prevention Club organized by Population Services International, watching the rough cuts of their video audition, which they turned into a film, shot impromptu on a Flip camera in 2009.

By Jesse Hawkes

Last month, which marked start of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, you may have been reminded of the great global atrocity that took place there in 1994, of the 1 million people killed in 100 days, of the trauma affecting the country both then and now. And, hopefully you were reminded of the great progress that has been made to stabilize Rwanda and move forward.

You may also have been reminded that Rwanda’s current government is heavily criticized by many international organizations and reporters for its record on civil and political human rights. The most common critiques are about limiting political space and free speech.

So, WITNESS community members might ask, “Is there a place for video for human rights in Rwanda today?”

I have worked in Rwanda for over a decade on theatre and film projects, as well as through my current role as executive  director of Global Youth Connect which brings delegations of young leaders to the country. I’ve really not seen any locally produced videos or documentaries concerning key civil and political issues commonly raised in critiques of the Rwandan government. I also haven’t seen individuals recording some of the less severe but none-the-less questionable events unfolding around them — for example, when the police, in accordance with strict laws, arrest women who sell shoes or fruit informally on the street.

Video of such arrests could be used to create empathy and some dialogue about alternative solutions, but taking of such videos — and posting them online to raise awareness — would probably be too risky in Rwanda, even when using tools like ObscuraCam. Police are everywhere on the streets to keep order, and journalism is not a trusted profession in Rwanda, in part for good reason, as the genocide in 1994 came about largely from the negative stereotypes of Tutsis in the media.

In general, provocative documentaries is just not the way things are done in Rwanda. In fact, many people will tell you that “advocacy” doesn’t really exist in Rwanda. If you want something done, you’ve got to speak to people privately, quietly. Work within the system, within the historically top-down culture. In 2009, when a coalition of local NGOs convinced parliament to drop a law that would have made homosexuality a crime in the country, they did so through position papers, informational meetings, some press conferences yes, but without any documentary video, and certainly no protesting in the streets.

Film and Video Expanding Dialog in Rwanda

During my time in Rwanda, however, I have witnessed and participated in the growth of film and video production, leading me to believe that narrative and documentary films are one mechanism through which human rights (especially economic and social human rights) could feasibly be promoted and debated in Rwanda today.

In 2005, the Rwandan Film Festival was launched and a call for youth to submit ideas for short films about key issues in their lives. In response, I worked with a high school group to create a short musical theatre film about a girl named Ingabire (“Gift”) who was stigmatized by her peers and professors at school for being HIV+.

Many people in Rwanda insist that stigma against people living with HIV doesn’t exist, but the youth in the schools said otherwise, and they spoke out about it. The short film toured the countryside along with several others on portable screens reaching thousands of people. The Rwandan Film Festival is now in it’s 10th year, expanding and creating dialogue about a variety of social issues including reconciliation, and exposing numerous Rwandans to the power of filmmaking. The Rwanda Cinema Centre has a film institute as well.

Another example is from COPORWA, the national organization serving the historically marginalized people formerly known as  the “batwa,” now known as the Potters. They produced a documentary video in 2009 about the plight of their people, and the video is surprisingly provocative.The video claims that the Potters are actually dying off as a result of discriminatory environmental policies that pushed them out of the rain-forests and left them in squalor in villages. In our GYC delegations, we visit Potters’ villages and we often watch the video as well and discuss how progress can be best made on human rights issues in Rwanda. In this year’s program we’ll be talking more about how video can be used safely and effectively for advocacy in the Rwandan context.

A Future for Cinematic Storytellers

Last summer, I gave my Flip video camera to a young Rwandan named Innocent, who had participated in GYC’s 2012 program. Innocent had a penchant and a passion for making videos, which he displayed working with a young Chinese documentarian on a video about our 2013 Human Rights Delegation. I knew Innocent would use the camera more than I would back in NYC, and sure enough, about two weeks after I left, he had created a gritty, engaging, short video about some basketball players at his college, and another action figure video with his two young brothers – both vamped-up nicely on computer software.

Now, this may not seem like a great feat in the field of video for human rights, but it encapsulates the can-do attitude of the Rwandan youth with whom I have worked over the past decade on theatre, radio, television, video and film projects. They are thirsting for this form of expression. And they excel at it.

Another story comes to mind.I will never forget the day when I traveled with my friend and colleague, the Rwandan film director Ayuub Kasasa, to watch a group of soldiers (mainly men) and commercial sex workers (all women) audition for a film that would promote safer sexual practices in their interrelated communities. The film was to be produced by Population Services International with the full stamp of approval of the Rwandan Ministry of Health. Ayuub and I showed up at a secondary school where the audition was to take place, and surprisingly the military men and the women had turned the school courtyard into a full fledged military camp with tents. The classrooms of the school were to be the bars (and bedrooms) of the nearby town. It was a full movie set and they performed the dialog of the movie in rapid succession from memory, with Ayuub and I following them around from scene to scene, me with my Flip camera. My jaw dropped in awe of both the raw talent of the actors as well their intense commitment to express themselves fully.

Creating videos explicitly about human rights issues in Rwanda is extremely sensitive. Given Rwanda’s history, perhaps one has to see films about HIV/AIDS stigma, or even a basketball video, as part of the exploration process. The question is, what stories are yet to be told? And who will tell them?

Jesse Hawkes is a social activist, theatre performer/director, writer, and youth development worker. He is the Executive Director of Global Youth Connect, which runs human rights immersion programs in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and other post-violence countries.

Image courtesy the author

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