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My Neighbor, My Killer takes us to a hillside village in Rwanda. In 1994, Hutus killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis nationally, and on this hillside Hutu patrols killed many Tutsis with machetes and clubs. Some of the victims’ widows and children still live on the hill today.

Truth and Reconciliation

My Neighbor, My Killer includes interviews recorded as far back ago as 2001. The filmmakers returned to Rwanda over the next half-decade, interviewing more subjects. Their film culminates in the last half of the decade when some of the local Hutus who had been jailed for ten years return to their home towns to face the Gacacas.

Gacacas are tribunals like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa: everyone in the community is welcome to come and speak about what they know. Tutsis and Hutus come together in public to testify what they know about the genocide. Perpetrators and collaborators are allowed to explain themselves, to show remorse, to face their victims. Victims in turn are allowed to express their pain and loss, to listen to the perpetrators, and if so moved, to suggest leniency. There are judges in attendance who will sentence killers to years in prison (many of which years have already been served); but if the people can come to a sense of truth and forgiveness, then the killers or collaborators may be allowed to go free with time served.

I became nervous for justice in Rwanda when the movie introduced the idea of Gacacas. Genocide is horrific. But to convict someone based on ten-year-old accusations is an invitation to witch-hunt injustice. Trials, I feared, would be he-said she-said affairs, where the pain of victimhood substitutes for concrete evidence of guilt in convicting the accused.

What actually happens on camera, once we get to see a Gacaca, is that those present all live in the same village; they all know each other; they know each other’s names, and they recognize each other. There is no question of whether this man or that man was present at the killing of a victim, because these people are neighbors, not strangers. And usually the defense is not “you have the wrong man” but “I admit I was present and part of the mob, but I didn’t personally do the killing” or “Yes, I was there and part of the mob, and we were all equally guilty.”

Weasel Words

As in any trial, human nature is on display. The accused use what in English would be the passive voice, laced with euphemism. I was pleased to see one Tutsi demand clearer language from a defendant. To paraphrase, he says “You call it war, but we weren’t fighting back. You call it a patrol, but what does a patrol do? You say you had no power, yet you organized the ‘patrol’ in the ‘war.’” And sure enough, the accused faces the music and answers the questions in more direct and clear language, something I’m not sure my fellow Americans would have the decency to do.

In an earlier scene, a Hutu has moved back to the hilltop village. He is supposed to introduce himself to the Tutsis who are still there and begin the conversation. But what is a man in that position supposed to say? And what are the survivors who live there supposed to do, welcome him with open arms? In the end, they talk, past each other at first, and evasively. The Hutu says offhand that “we exterminated ‘each other,’” (the genocide was definitely not two-sided). They speak at first without making eye contact, each speaking about the other in the third person. Eventually, though, the Hutus and Tutsis do speak face to face. It’s painful and there’s no obvious immediate reconciliation. But they spoke, and that’s a start.

Contents and Container

The Gacacas are a great subject matter, but that doesn’t guarantee a great documentary. In fact, I found this documentary to be pretty weak. It seems as though the documentarians went to Rwanda hoping to find a great story. I didn’t get a sense of direction from the very beginning, and unfortunately, an overall story did not emerge from the footage. The last act of the movie does manage to focus on one or two specific incidents and defendants, which is what substitutes for a story arc. But the whole feels like a “best of” collection of some admittedly interesting footage.

I’ll concede another point of view is possible, however. My wife joined me for the film and she thought it was a particularly strong documentary. She had read a New Yorker article on the subject, and she found the documentary to be a great illustration of what she had read. So perhaps if you already know your recent Rwandan history, you will find My Neighbor, My Killer to be a better film than if you don’t.

This is not Rashomon. We know what happened. People are dead, and as one man says, they didn’t die of meningitis or suicide. But it’s in the interest of perpetrators to convince everyone that they are innocent. And it’s in the interest of society that perpetrators are not allowed to lie to us or to themselves about their own guilt. It’s in our interest to make sure that they admit their wrongs, that they live with the guilt and the consequences, so that we can trust them not to do it again. Hopefully the way South Africa and Rwanda react to great injustice will make the world a more peaceful place.