My Neighbor, My Killer
Are We Anybody’s Keeper?

How does one deal with a great injustice?  At the personal level (and on a Hollywood scale), the solution may look something like Clyde Shelton’s in Law Abiding Citzen: if your wife and daughter are murdered right in front of you and the killer gets a slap on the wrist from The System, take matters into your own hands and bring the murderer—and the whole corrupt system—down.  At a more global level (and in a what-if proposal of Swiftian proportions), maybe it looks like Quentin Tarantino’s gleefully sadistic revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds: show them no mercy, for you will be shown none.  (Aragorn, are you paying attention?)

But that’s all theoretical, and highly fictionalized.

In the real world, and on levels both personal and national, the citizens of Rwanda have had to come up with very specific, highly painful, and ultimately unsatisfactory answers to that question.  Director Anne Aghion documents how post-genocide governmental efforts toward reconciliation between Hutu and Tutsi have affected one rural community.

Anne Aghion, director of My Neighbor My KillerBetween April 20 and 22 of 1994, as the culmination of a long period of racial unrest, ethnic Hutus rounded up and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis—most of them neighbors, many of them relatives.  Between 1995 and 1997, following establishment of a new government in Rwanda, over 100,000 Hutu men were denounced as murderers and jailed without trials. 

As the task of rebuilding the nation got under way, a difficult reality emerged: how could the country rebuild without hands to rebuild it?  The vast majority of Tutsi men were dead, a significant minority of Hutu men were jailed—and an enormous share of the nation’s remaining resources were being devoted to the incarceration of the accused.

Practicality (and the inspiration of South Africa’s national reconciliation policies) produced a plan for repatriation and reconciliation: the Gacaca Tribunals.  Starting on January 1, 2003, jailed Hutus would be released back into their communities for eventual open-air hearings in which magistrates would hear testimony from the genocide’s survivors about the supposed roles that each of the accused played in the massacre.

The 2001 government announcement, as you may imagine, was not met with great enthusiasm.  Instead, locals advocated termination—with extreme prejudice.  As one of Aghion’s subjects remarked, a harsh example serves as a deterrent: “People will say, ‘Killing is bad.  If I kill, I will be killed in return.’”  Another describes herself as “sadness incarnate.”

Government officials spend two years preparing both prisoners and communities for the inevitable and uncomfortable reunion.  “We must replenish our hearts,” one administer tells the perpetrators.  “Your judge will be your neighbor.”  And, as Aghion’s title observes, your neighbor will be the one who killed your husband, your children, your sister.

The Gacaca road to reconciliation, as documented here without adornment, has been rocky at best.  The Hutu men return to their village feeling recalcitrant and unjustly penalized.  Despite the conditions of release requiring that the accused visit their accusers to ask forgiveness, neither party seeks out the other despite living only tens of yards away from each other.  The Tutsi women have a hard time believing what has been foisted upon them.  “If it were you, what would you say?  What would you do?” one asks the camera.  “Let them sweep away what’s left of me,” another says.  “I’m already dead.”

As the international community idealizes the process of reconciliation, and as media attention (including Aghion’s camera) continues to keep Rwanda in sharp focus while the tension drags on until tribunals finally begin in 2005, one of the Tutsi women finally observes: “These whites ask the strangest questions.”  To them, there is no mystery.  Resentment runs deep.  They are not inclined to forget, much less forgive.  To even talk about how they feel is a betrayal.  They have been as good as dead for a decade, and old wounds are being pried uncomfortably open.  This is not a process that feels good for anyone involved, and no one is happy.  It makes one wonder how much rougher things would have gone had cameras not been around to record the process.

As this spare and painful film charts its course through three more years of tribunals and appeals toward a final, grudging, capitulation of forgiveness, we might ask ourselves what good can possibly come of such unspeakably horrific peace.  To paraphrase and co-opt what one of the women asks about one of the perpetrators:  Is the point to move us?  To soften our hearts?  Is that even possible?

Reconciliation, at the purely human level, is a necessary evil; but it does not bring healing if merely human.  In fact, lingering resentments over such things make the gory madness of Inglourious Basterds—or the slaughter of the Old Testament or the Crusades—look positively reasonable.

But we can thank Aghion for pulling the veil back from what I fear has been a Western whitewash of Rwandan reconciliation.  I am afraid we do not have the luxury of patting ourselves on the back and saying, “Well, I guess we’ve cut the legs out from under retaliation, haven’t we?”  The future likely holds yet a great deal more darkness.

If, in fact, there is any hope of reconciliation, it will come not from men but from God.  Do you want to see what human brokenness looks like in its fullest?  Look no further.  And start envisioning the impossible now, with the help of God, if you ever expect mercy to reign in your life.

My Neighbor, My Killer is unrated.  Aghion’s film never gets particularly graphic, either in visual clips or in verbal descriptions.  What’s raw here are emotions.  Any child who had the patience for it might find it very, very disturbing.  Adults will.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of My Neighbor, My Killer.  The film continues to play on the festival circuit and other limited engagements, and is available (for educational purposes only) on DVD via the film’s official site.