‘Sometimes in April’ is a story of Rwanda, steeped in the images of past ethnic discrimination which was systematically initiated by the Belgian colonialists. The film, written, directed and produced by Raoul Peck, analyzes in ambitious detail, the horrific events that devastated millions of lives during the unprecedented 1994 outpour of terror and violence in Rwanda.
There will be little understanding of the genocide without recourse to the roles of the colonialists. This understanding must have prompted the film producer to begin the film by showing a map of Africa captured in a long shot. The map gradually zooms in to give a close shot of the map of Rwanda, which is quickly followed by a scrolling screen text of the history of Rwanda: “For centuries, the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa of Rwanda shared the same culture, language and religion. In 1916, Belgium took control of Rwanda from Germany and installed a rigid colonial system of racial classification and exploitation” (‘Sometimes in April’). By giving a glimpse into the history of colonialism, ‘Sometimes in April’ tries to correct what Mamdani has observed as the ‘silences in academic research’ on the Rwandan genocide. These silences relate to the presentation of the Rwandan genocide as an anthropological oddity with no history or plausible reasons to account for its occurrence. These colonial historical details are reinforced succinctly by Clark in ‘The Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda’.
The most significant contribution by the Belgians to the widening social, cultural and economic divide between Hutu and Tutsi, however, was the introduction of ethnic identity cards in 1933. The Belgians issued an identity card to every Rwandan man and woman that indicated whether he or she was a Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. Numerous factors determined an individual’s ethnic categorization, including his or her ownership of cattle. Individuals with ten or more head of cattle were classified as Tutsi, along with their offspring; those with fewer than ten were classified as Hutu. After 1933 people received their ethnic classification according to their father’s line. This system continued throughout the twentieth century until it was abolished after the genocide. It was often on the basis of identity cards that Hutu killers identified Tutsi whom they massacred in 1994.
The elevation of the Tutsis over the Hutus created resentment among the Hutus, who were the majority tribe. The narrative device of the film with the filmic techniques underscores the potential of the film as a testimonial. A deep voice-over immediately commences after the screen text, layering further historical details on the camera’s bird’s-eye view of an expanse of Rwandan’s flora. This montage technique lets the viewers into a visualize space of Rwanda, and allows them to internalize the features of a country that experienced a devastating act of mass butchery in which nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in a space of three months by Hutu extremists. Bah recounts that “the genocide in Rwanda between April and June 1994, which was central to the crisis of the region, was one of the most gruesome massacres of civilians since the Holocaust during the Second World War”. These events are represented in complex ways by the film, especially through a multilayered character-based dramatic narrative that carefully weaves together a lot of ‘true stories’. In the course of the pre-production of the film, the producer/director Raoul Peck travelled to Rwanda to meet with some of the witnesses, who have been mainly victims of the events. As part of his research, he listened to them and took strong notes. The harrowing first person-accounts convinced him of the need not just to bring their nuances to a global public by situating the events in a wider historical framework, but to invite considerations of the real and symbolic import of those blighted days on humanity. By juxtaposing these first person accounts with fiction, Peck turns the film into a mosaic that lays out fundamental aspect of an intricate puzzle. The benefit of this was the extent of the verisimilitude imposed on the film. Put together, the film was able to make a powerful statement about the relationship between present and past, the importance of history, communal memory, and healing.
‘Sometimes in April’ can be located within the framework of a growing body of texts on historical trauma and memory studies. It evokes memory in order to explicate the ways in which it discursively works through a historical event of traumatic magnitude. It mobilizes imagery in a dramatic narrative populated by proximate characters, while inviting informed viewers to revisit, and uninformed viewers to witness scenes from the past. It calls attention to the spectral or haunting property of some forms of memories that are to be retrieved from the past, despite the pain they caused or the forms of denial they produced. It also examines how the reconstructed memories of the past that others have made consciously manifest through testimonials affect perception of that past. For instance, in one of the memorable flash forwards in the film, Augustin Muganza is captured by the camera reading a letter from his brother Honore, who is languishing in detention for crimes against humanity committed during the genocide. The letter is relayed in Honore’s voice-over: “My dear brother, the rains are here, it is April again. How many years since we have spoken. From my prison I am writing you this long due letter. I don’t expect pity or love. I know that despite all the graves in your life, you have found something to live for. It was not supposed to happen this way; the war, the killings. When I finally realized that I was an actor in this tragedy, I chose not to live with that, I thought my death will bring me peace. I was wrong. Only the truth can ease my guilt. Dear Augustin, I must tell you what happened to Jeanne and the children. Come to Tanzania. Don’t write me back. Just come. Your brother, Honore” (‘Sometimes in April’). The reading of this letter against the background of the camera’s flashpoints on the pictures of his late family, which is hung on the walls creates an immediate track of traumatic memory.
The struggle with trauma is a struggle with memory. Such struggle typifies flashes that go back and forward in recurring timelines. Reasonably, the detailing of the plot of ‘Sometimes in April’ contains several longer and other sometimes dispelling and fragmented flashbacks, where Augustin recounts or revisits episodes of his family life, his desperate struggle to survive during the events, and his search for what happened to his beloved ones. The film tries to visualize the hectic workings of (individual and collective) memory in relation to traumatic experiences. Before the final outbursts of the ravaging butchery, there have been signs of smokes bellowing from every corner of Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. Human corpses are strewn everywhere on the streets. Augustin begs his brother, who is still popular among the rank and file of the perpetrators, to take his family to safety at the Hotel des Mille Collines, where some international citizens are being given protection. Despite his wife’s resistance, Augustine stayed behind, hoping it will be a temporary separation from his family. Before Honore has travelled far with his brother’s family, their car is stopped by soldiers manning a roadblock. Honore introduces himself as a party cadre working for the RTLM extremist radio station and that he is on the way to a supermarket for shopping with the family. As for the family, Honore says that “they are ours” (‘Sometimes in April’), meaning that the family also supports Hutu extremists. After a brief exchange of words with his superiors, one of the soldiers goes to the car and asks Jeanne to produce her identity card. The moment Jeanne announces that she forgot the identity card at home, the soldier violently breaks the window amidst loud screaming from Jeanne and her two sons. Honore’s plea “I work for the party” (‘Sometimes in April’) goes unheeded, and the soldiers willfully harass the children and kill the family. Augustine’s separation from his family and the eventual killing of his friend, Xavier, right before his eyes, become for him the abstraction of his memory from which he interprets himself as an unconscious participant in the genocide. It becomes a representation of experiences and feelings too traumatic to acknowledge.
A traumatic past leaves its own residue behind. It occupies a hidden haunting presence and activate a symptomatic revenant in the identity of the victim. The end of ‘Sometimes in April’ does not guarantee a resolution to this trauma, which have the tendency of returning to turn familial genealogy into a nightmare of incredible stories. The reflected ending signals interminability – not as sentimental faked identification with history and its actors, but as a way of inscription of the representation of a past.