In SOMETIMES IN APRIL, Raoul Peck (Lumumba), has taken the specific story of the Rwandan genocide of April 1994 and made manifest the universal implications of the events. There is plenty of culpability to go around and Peck is not shy about pointing fingers, but he is also not shy about pointing up the greater lesson of what happened, one that requires acts of personal and political courage as great as those demanded during the bloodshed.
His focus is on Augustin, (Idris Elba) a Hutu ex-soldier who has gone on with his life, despite losing his Tutsi wife children in the genocide. But he can’t bring himself to formalize the arrangement with is cherished common-law wife, nor can he bring himself to have anything to do with his brother, Honore (Oris Orhuero), who was a radio journalist in 1994. Honore, along with others on the airwaves, was turning his rhetoric from political opinion to the incitement that would turn deadly. In 2004, he is awaiting trial for his actions at the international tribunal in Tanzania, actions that he is just coming to realize were as responsible for the massacres as if he himself had been wielding a machine gun or, the weapon of choice, a machete. He’s also reaching out to his estranged brother, who is compelled to reach back, if only for closure of some sort.
Slipping between the past the present and from Rwanda to Washington, Peck explores every angle of the genocide and its fallout. The State Department, recently burned by the Blackhawk crash in Somalia and very public desecration of American soldier’s corpses, isn’t eager to intervene anywhere else. The lone voice arguing for intervention, Prudence Bushnell (Debra Winger), throws the number of dead at her superiors and argues from a humanitarian, rather than political, mindset. The mainstream media gives the events a few minutes of airtime. The jump cut from a report speculating on how difficult it will be for the U.N. troops there to the re-enactment of those troops being brutalized by the rebels is a succinct judgment call on where and how the mainstream media fails when it comes to informing the public it is supposed to serve. It’s followed by the invasion of a government official’s home by armed troops, and the invasion of Augustin’s own home, where he is informed by the officer in charge that he knows that his wife is a Tutsi and that if they are here when he returns, things will go badly. It’s not just that this sequence is, like the film as a whole, a masterful piece of filmmaking, lucid and unflinching, intelligently written and sensitively directed. It’s also that it directly hones in on Peck’s larger idea, demonstrating a direct cause-and-effect from the general to the specific of a character we’ve come to care about and it does it without stooping to a screed.
There is no cheap exploitation of the gruesome details. Unthinkable things occur, but it is the faces on which Peck chooses to focus. Idris, in a world-class performance, wears an expression that will harden into a mask, one of barely contained anger and utter bafflement. The cold dead eyes of the rebels killing without conscience, the victim’s eyes, pleading or uncomprehending, or, worst of all somehow, resigned to what is happening, beyond fighting back or pleading for mercy. It is that more than the blood or the piles of bodies that brings home the fear that is a constant devastating presence.
Unlike the equally brilliant HOTEL RWANDA, this is a look at what happened outside the relatively safe confines of the Hotel Mille Collines. People scramble in the suddenly hostile environs of their own neighborhoods, discovering a war zone where sanctuaries are violated, non-combatants don’t exist, and everyone, friend or stranger, is a potential killer. Through it all, an on-screen tally that will number over a million in the course of a hundred days gives each day’s death toll, as Hutus and the Tutsis at odds because of colonialism, a post-colonial period that exacerbated it, and a world that turned its back on it to let it fend for itself, only, and hypocritically, to look on in proper horror afterwards at what happened..
This is why SOMETIMES IN APRIL succeeds as such a powerful and effective piece of filmmaking. Full of sadness and a fair amount of anger, it is not vitriolic. Anger in this context, while certainly justifiable is shown for what it can turn into, an ultimately useless, even dangerous emotion, one that will destroy those acting on it and, worse, serve as a flashpoint for further genocide. Haunting and elegiac, this film demands of his characters, and of its viewers, to find within themselves the courage to allow healing to take root. And by being inclusive in the worldview he sets out, Peck sets the right example for the world.