My Neighbor, My Killer
Reviewed in October 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Anne Aghion. Documentary about the Gacaca communal courts at which survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide have prosecuted, tried, and sentenced those they accuse of having perpetrated atrocities.
Twitter Capsule: What extraordinary doc lacks in finesse and structure it nails in emotional candor and eyewitness value
Summer 2011: PLEASE HELP fund a phenomenal project related to this film, on behalf of millions of Rwandans!

Photo © 2009 Gacaca Productions/Anne Aghion Films
All of the major narrative films about the Rwandan genocide, from the AMPAS favorite Hotel Rwanda to the HBO-purchased Sometimes in April to the barely-released Beyond the Gates to the Rwandan-made Munyurangabo (which scored a tiny release this summer in the largest U.S. cities) have intersected on at least one point, which is the emerald verdure of the Rwandan landscape, its voluptuous hilliness. Even the sinuous paths of the dirt roads have a topographical elegance and humble sensuality, and Anne Aghion's new documentary My Neighbor, My Killer needs less than a minute to immerse its audience in the almost embarrassing beauty of the place. Thankfully, it's a beauty that speaks for itself; Aghion isn't interested in touristic dawdling or romanticizing light. She's just chosen her shots and color-processed the film so that the environment mutely registers its own gorgeousness, its promise of shelter and subsistence, of life. But of course, it's also the space of a haunting so profound as to exceed imagination—even, or maybe unless, or maybe especially if you lived through the genocidal civil war that supersaturated the dirt and the rivers with blood, laying bare the bodies of at least 800,000 people on those hip-shaped, tree-lined roads over the course of 100 days in 1994.

Rwanda, however comely the country, however astonishing the fact of its current elected legislature, which includes more women than men, will forever connote the same Stygian chill as Auschwitz, as Hiroshima. Imagine having to live in that space, knowing that the perpetrators of epochal violence were townspeople, neighbors, sometimes members of your own family, which only underscores the fact that the "ethnic" distinction between Hutus and Tutsis that became the murderous pivot of that spring verges in many respects on an aribtrary designation, with virtually no differential axis in genetics or language or history. Imagine having to live with the memory of your infant being wrested from the swaddling cloths on your back and macheted before your eyes. I'm not trying to diminish anyone else's suffering or naturalize any culture's privileged access to pain when I remind us how many American dramas probe the anguish of losing a single family member to the carnivorous impulse of a transparently motivated antagonist; In the Bedroom comes to mind first for me, but furnish your own example. Compare that to the legacy of 800,000 citizens decimated at the same point-blank range, often whole families at a time, killed by fellow citizens who had no outward reason, dramatic or political, to feel differently toward them in April than they had in February or March. Now imagine, as happened in the years after 2001, that tens of thousands of these accused perpetrators begin flooding back into their original communities after a government decree to restore peace, reintegrate local societies, and jump-start a national movement of truth-telling and reconciliation that marked the only conceivable chance for emotional, cultural, or (it must be admitted) economic progress. Imagine all of the killers, the avowed and the unconfessed and perhaps a few of the wrongly convicted, pouring back into the world, your world. And imagine what their world has been, after seven or eight or nine years of massive incarceration, via the somewhat improvisatory legal and physical structures necessitated by dire emergency, and amid the whirlwinding conscience of one who killed, or helped to kill, or failed to protect, for no concrete reason that he—always "he," it seems, in the film's gendered canvas—can cite.

My Neighbor, My Killer stays virtually silent about international refusals to intervene in the civil war, which have, not surprisingly, served as the main coordinates and embedded points of view for most of the other films about Rwanda. Nor is the film directly about the genocide, unless we admit that the soul-sick reckoning "after" a genocide is part of the genocide, as fully as the protracted, evasive, discombobulated spasms of the "end" of a war are part of the war, as centrally as the combats or the tactical conferences. The film, eschewing any but the sparest historical exposition, establishes its métier early on with its questions to Annonciata Mukanyonga, a poor woman living in the Gitarama province who tells the tale (not unique, even within this film) of having a baby wrenched from her and murdered before her eyes. Her full recollection entails the slaughter of her entire family at one time, with the villains mockingly deciding to leave her alive as a figure of "sorrow incarnate," but as she stoically drudges up this information (how often must she hear it in her head?), she has to volley off her stool for a moment to beat back a restless ox that has sauntered into the open room where she is testifying to the offscreen interviewer. It's a stirring image of practical context. Annonciata has animals to tend, by reflex if not quite with ease, and they're too valuable to ignore or to take for granted. There is nothing so ennobling about committing her memories to film that enables her to step outside the mundane demands of her ongoing life. Still, the scene also resonates thematically in the film: the bull that has wandered back home, the restless creature that Annonciata and her peers are forever, almost robotically repelling, even as they also feed and sustain it, even as there's no imaginable version of a "choice" about whether or not to own it. Meanwhile, offscreen, men chop down banana trees for wood and to clear the land for farming, but the echoes of the hatchets on the tree trunks, without Aghion mixing them too loud, make their own unnerving point.

Annonciata is one of several women who will attend with great interest, sorrow, sternness, and skepticism the Gacaca Community Court Trials, which come across like a more practically rickety, less centralized, less globally visible cousin of the South African Truth and Reconciliation sessions. The men and women of the town sit in groups on the ground as a judicial board of their peers, wearing sashes striped with the colors of the Rwandan flag, elicit the testimony of aggrieved women and of men admitting various degrees of culpability and contrition. Quickly, and unfortunately, the film's refusal to get bogged down in exposition becomes a structural liability. Aghion isn't very diligent at explaining when these trials officially began or how long they wore on, despite the fact that, besides the historical value of such knowledge, the crystal clarity of the women's memories and the professed amnesia of some of the men would translate differently if they were speaking seven or ten or fifteen years after the events they are describing. Too frequently, My Neighbor, My Killer lurches forward two or more years in a single cut, with only an on-screen caption to let us know, often including a short reference to some political edict or national judicial pronouncement that has interceded along the way. These in turn sound interesting, but again, given Aghion's dogged commitment to the local, grassroots level of these trials, it isn't always easy to "hook" such superstructural information to the moment-by-moment practicalities of what we are observing. There may be an embedded point here about the long, frustrating crawl of justice, but My Neighbor feels too compacted to make a clearly editorial point in that direction. Instead, it just seems erratically assembled, or else overly hesitant to push outward from its vérité recordings and to organize what we're seeing and hearing within larger contexts.

Aghion also rarely credits the names of her interview subjects more than once on screen, which also becomes confusing. The emotional force of what they tell us is often so overwhelming, and they are so often interviewed in pairs or trios, that we can't always remember who is who without a bit of extra prompting. Yet these interviews are so astonishingly candid that they easily transcend some of the formal lapses in the film's construction—and by "candid," I do not at all mean that they are an unremitting stream of bathetic despondency. Quite to the contrary, the women Aghion interviews are some tough birds, whether by personality or as a coruscated effect of what they've lived through, and they don't spare the film crew any of the force of their monumental disabusement. In one static, unedited shot that unfolds as grippingly as the best talking-head interviews, a pair of women whom I suspect are younger than their lives have allowed them to look, start by telling Aghion (as always, offscreen) about the return of the men who ruined their lives but have now inherited some plots of land and other small subsidies to get them back on their feet. Swiftly the conversation re-directs itself to confidences exchanged between Euphrasie and Félicité with seemingly no regard for the camera. With severe, Hecuban stoicism, they espouse the likelihood that these men will rape and kill again and may as well get on with it ("Why waste their time when we are already dead?"), and then mutter to each other about what, for them, is the impermeable strangeness of being asked how they "feel" about these returns, about their lost family members, about their desecrated lives. "These whites ask the strangest questions," Euphrasie opines, and for once, a documentary doesn't edit the moment for guilty-liberal chuckles among its undoubtedly white, Western audience. The incongruity and fundamental indelicacy of Aghion's enterprise is bluntly and coolly exposed, even as the rest of the documentary amply makes a case for why the Gacaca trials and the afterlife of civil war need to be perceived and understood by lots and lots of people.

These interpellations of the camera crew and of the ethics of documentary by Aghion's own subjects furnish vital moments to the film, time and time again. At another key moment, Félicité admits that she knows Aghion has also been interviewing the man she accuses of killing her relatives; as she prophesizes, he has maintained his innocence, and somewhat persuasively so, muddying the waters of external judgment in My Neighbor, My Killer more than one might expect. She also asks the invisible director, "Is this what you would do? You would embrace the killer and his family? Give them food, land, cows?" The women of Gitarama refuse to be idealized into pious granters of clemency, any more than they reduce down to frozen emblems of sorrow. By including these shrewd expressions of moral intelligence, Aghion prevents her film from smiling beatifically on the spectacle of a society re-collecting itself under a banner of mended fences, even though My Neighbor, My Killer also avoids the kind of dogmatism that might claim that nothing is improving.

Indeed, the process of justice feels hopeful and well-intended but water-logged and out-of-body, as it seems to feel when one encounters it in one's own life, though obviously exponentiated in cultural and emotional scale. Within the strange netherzone of the high-minded but nerve-wracked town trials, Félicité Nyirasangwa, the woman who has become the most frequent focalizer for the film's interviews, and thus for its figural access to other women, experiences a troubling slide into what at least a few of her friends designate as "madness." She is unrelenting in her accusations, increasingly inclined to upset her comrades by taking the Lord's name casually in vain, and she sometimes draws her clothes around her face and body in the middle of a proceeding. But what is the proper or the "mad" reaction to hearing a neighbor stake his self-exoneration on the claim that, as he says, "I am partly responsible for her children's deaths, but I didn't do anything else." How do you start to weigh an assertion like that, much less react to it emotionally, especially if you are the "her" in that sentence?

The final scenes of My Neighbor, My Killer gravitate increasingly toward various men in the community, both the penitents and other accused and some of the male witness-prosecutors, one of whom assumes an almost evangelical full-body affect as he recounts his testimony. When editor Nadia Ben Rachid cuts directly from one prisoner's trial and sentencing to his subsequent appeal, the film supersedes its occasional lapses into halting narrative and spotty time-plotting. The surreal velocity from sentence to appeal—culminating in an extensive prison sentence that is instantly commuted, as they often are, by time already served in a post-1994 communal jail—expresses something important about the plaintiffs' bewildering experience of legal process as well as the witnesses' and onlookers' uncertainty about whether the much-denounced "culture of impunity" has really been rectified. Despite a few attempts to probe the perspectives and consciences of men like these, especially with regard to an elusive figure named Abraham Rwamfizi, indicted by several women in the village despite his protests of being a nightwatchman, not a marauder, My Neighbor, My Killer never gets quite as close to them as it does to the women. Euphrasie thinks she knows why: "You think he'll open up to you?" she asks the camera, almost quizzically bemused. However much the film falls short in delivering a solid objective foundation for the factual structures and temporal sequence beneath what we're watching, there is no gainsaying the potency of moments like these, as women made horribly wiser by their grief attest to their devastated worldview, yet simultaneously pose explicit challenges to the very possibility of capturing or communicating what they still go through, to say nothing of healing their unhealable wounds.

Almost every trial begins with a compulsory "minute of silence" to remember the dead, but what do the Rwandans do, all day every day, except remember the dead? One interview subject defends the importance of these ceremonial moments, stating that intimate mourning and the labor of coming to spiritual grips are necessarily "private" acts. The Gacaca trials and the existence of My Neighbor, My Killer strongly imply otherwise, but perhaps for that very reason, neither the courts nor the film make easy, intuitive sense to the survivors they are meant to honor. In one crucial scene, haunting for its respectfully distant image of possible culprits shaking hands with the women whose families they may have helped annihilate, the women seem even more perplexed by the presence of the far-off camera than by the discomfiting solicitude of these men. Even amid these tense encounters, about which they have speculated for many years, they cannot help looking to the offscreen camera crews, either wondering why they are there, or how they are supposed to look. The small-talk that the Rwandans subsequently exchange outside their modest homes and buildings is just as unnerving, in its way, as the direct confrontations in "court."

By a similar principle, the making and viewing of the film are just as unnerving, in their way, as the local and global temptation to look away from these ghastly tragedies. I admire My Neighbor, My Killer tremendously and am deeply moved to have seen it, but few documentaries are quite as rigorous and artful in exposing the complex stakes behind pointing a camera and a microphone at scenes of profound social injury—and few are as honorable as this one in conceding at every moment that, no matter how baffled these men and women are by how they are meant to go on with their lives, they know more about their lives and even about the implicit dynamics of filmmaking than the ostensibly dispassionate film crew, for all of its "critical distance," will ever achieve. Grade: B+

VOR: (5)   (What is this?)
Notwithstanding the occasional awkwardness in storytelling structure or in production values (though these are hardly beneath a standard you expect from a location-shoot documentary), My Neighbor, My Killer is indispensable not just for the candid witnessing it performs on a delicate and complicated process but for the ways it interrogates its own credibility and positioning as a witnessing document, without being afraid to apply some skeptical pressure to even its most sympathetic subjects when necessary. They certainly return the favor, which is very much to the movie's credit, and more than that, its journalistic and ethical worth. This is another way of saying that My Neighbor, My Killer sustains a crucial tradition in nonfiction filmmaking, increasingly short-shrifted as the form is more widely practiced, of immersing oneself patiently within the environment one is attempting to grasp and of making the instabilities and political charge induced by one's own presence into a foregrounded concern of the film. This can happen without going so far as to make the filmmakers' self-regard obtrusive to the proceedings, which certainly isn't the case here. My Neighbor, My Killer is enlightening and sobering, as film practice and as cultural study.

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