Last Friday night, Alrick Brown’s feature film “Kinyarwanda” premiered at the independently-owned West End Cinema in Washington, DC to a sold-out theatre. The film, based on actual accounts of survivors from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, weaves together the stories of six fictional Rwandan individuals whose lives cross paths during the genocide. The film, which made its debut at the 2011 Sundance Festival, won the festival’s Audience Award in the World Cinema Drama category, and is currently playing for a limited time in eight major US cities that also include: New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco.
“Kinyarwanda” tells a narrative within the genocide that has not yet been tackled on the big screen: the story of the Muslim community in Rwanda and their role in protecting Tutsis during the genocide. In 1994, the Mufti of Rwanda, or the most respected Muslim leader in the country, issued a fatwa forbidding Muslims from participating in the killing of the Tutsi. This act inadvertently made mosques a safe haven for Tutsis, regardless of religious affiliation, as they sought refuge from Hutu killers. The film is based on the accounts of survivors who took refuge in the Grand Mosque of Kigali and the madrassa of Nyanza.
Speaking in a short Q & A session after the film, that was moderated by Enough Project Executive Director John Bradshaw, Brown told the packed theatre that he was drawn to the narrative because it was a crucial and missing part of the Rwandan genocide story: “It [The Muslim story] shouldn’t be a surprise,” he said.
Brown first learned of the Muslim community’s influence during the genocide when he visited Rwanda in 2009 and met Rwandan filmmaker Ishmael Ntihabose, the executive producer of the film. Inspired by survivors’ stories and the chance to depict the genocide in a new way, Brown agreed to collaborate with Ntihabose to direct the film. Working with a small budget, Brown kept the filming simple. The cast of the film consists mostly of Rwandans; including genocide survivors who, during the filming, confronted many of the memories and feelings of that time. It results in an intimate film, allowing the dialogue and raw emotions of the characters to powerfully portray the traumatic emotional currents of the time.
The film’s focal point is found in the human connections that are formed between the characters, regardless of ethnicity, status, and age. It is also a story of humanity, accountability, forgiveness and cross-ethnic love. Brown captures the realities of choices, both those made during those three months in 1994 and in the aftermath of the genocide.