Could you forgive the person who killed your father? Could you forgive the person who raped your mother? These are the kind of questions that may pop into your head while watching producer-director Laura Waters Hinson’s documentary As We Forgive, a documentary about the survivors of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and their journey of forgiveness and reconciliation with the men who killed their families.
Hinson won the 2008 Student Academy Award with this emotional film—previous winners include Spike Lee, Bob Saget and Trey Parker—and now she has the opportunity to share it with the world. Here she talks with MM about the steps that made this documentary happen.
Katie Garton (MM): What exactly did you see on your church mission trip that made you want to make this documentary? Was there already a publicized goal of forgiveness that was evident or did you want to create one?
Laura Waters Hinson (LWH): The first time I traveled to Rwanda in 2005, I was part of a faith-based volunteer effort to build a partnership with a community in northeast Rwanda. I had prepared myself to confront the horrors of the 1994 genocide that I knew I would inevitably encounter—the victims, the mass graves, the memorial sites laden with human bones. What I wasn’t prepared for was this: In 2003, the Rwandan government began releasing over 60,000 genocide prisoners who had confessed to their crimes. Due to an overwhelming backlog of court cases, the government saw little hope but to send repentant criminals back to the communities they once tried to destroy, and to encourage people to reconcile. When I arrived in 2005, nearly 50,000 killers had already been released and thousands of communities across the Rwanda were grappling with the question: How do I forgive the killers of my loved ones? How do we live as neighbors once again? This was a question that haunted me as I imagined myself in their place. Could I forgive? I wasn’t sure—and that problem intrigued me even more. So, I spent the following year preparing to shoot a film that would feature Rwandans at different points in the journey toward reconciliation: Victims, perpetrators, those who’d forgiven and those who hadn’t. The result is As We Forgive.
MM: In an article you said you raised the $25,000 for the movie from friends and family. What did you exactly do? You also made this for your thesis at American University, did they help with the funding at all?
LWH: The budget for this film came together through a variety of fortunate circumstances. The vast majority of the funding came from dear friends and family members who believed in the topic enough to give generously. I didn’t write any grants or do any of the things they tell you to do in film school! The film served as my masters thesis for my M.F.A. at American University. While the university loaned to me the majority of my camera equipment, and provided great oversight from my thesis board, it did not provide financially.
MM: You’ve said that Emmanuel Kwizera, the translator, was key in earning the trust of the victims and perpetrators. What was the process you guys had to go through to convince Rosaria and Chantale to allow you to follow their story of forgiveness? How long did it take for them to say yes?
LWH: Our translator, Emmanuel Kwizera, was pivotal in helping us to gain access into the lives of the two genocide survivors we interviewed, Rosaria and Chantale. Emmanuel, being a survivor of the genocide himself, was as passionate about this project as the rest of us. He strongly believed that these stories needed to be heard. Overall, we didn’t have much trouble convincing the subjects to take part in the movie. In fact, we had too many people who wanted to tell us their stories! Rosaria and Chantale told me that they felt that the world had ignored what happened to them during the genocide of 1994. They felt that taking part in the film was their chance to tell the world what happened to them and to convey the paradoxical hope that is coming from Rwanda today. Though Chantale wanted to tell her story, she was hesitant to have her first meeting in 14 years with the man who murdered her father recorded on camera. The first day we asked, she said she wasn’t ready for that. But just a few days later, she came back to us and said that she’d changed her mind and wanted us to film all of it. That was a huge breakthrough because that scene later became the emotional climax of the movie.
MM: I can’t imagine how emotional this shooting was to do. How did you get through it? What was going on your head while shooting scenes of the women crying and the perpetrators confessing?
LWH: The shooting of As We Forgive was, on one hand, incredibly invigorating as so many important pieces just fell into place in front of our eyes. Our subjects were, for the most part, eager to tell us about their lives and struggles. On the other hand, their stories were rife with unthinkable, shocking details of human brutality. I found myself steeling my heart as a journalist might do, so as to not drown from the pain. If I became too emotionally involved, I knew that my ability to direct the film would deteriorate. I wrote in a journal obsessively each night after our shoots, trying to make sense of it all, trying to process the cruelty and death mixed with hope and redemption. It was definitely an experience that sent me searching the depths of my own soul, exploring my own thoughts about the meaning of human existence, of evil, of the nature of suffering, of faith and of the potential for transformation. The bulk of my processing, however, went on during the editing process. There were a number of nights where I stared into the eyes of these people on my computer screen, beholding their grief and shame, and I just wept. At the end of the day, however, the stories I had captured were stories of magnificent grace and healing. The power of repentance and forgiveness in these people’s hearts had utterly transformed their lives and communities. This kind of conclusion was what gave me the strength to finish the film myself, with no paycheck or anything, because I believed it had the potential to make a difference in other peoples’ lives.
MM: Were you able to get all of the moments and angles you wanted with such a small crew? If not, what do you wish you could have captured?
LWH: There is a beauty to working with a small guerrilla crew of volunteer filmmakers who care passionately about the subject at hand. That is exactly what we had on this shoot. Because of our small size and meager resources, we didn’t have grand expectations about how the film would turn out. As such, we were thrilled each day when we achieved more than we ever expected. Looking back, however, I wish we had gotten much more b-roll than we did, especially scenes that showed the perpetrators and victims interacting together in their communities.
There was no chance of additional shooting on this project, so I just had to take what we captured from our four weeks of shooting and make it work. Just this summer, however, I was able to shoot an epilogue to the movie as it’s been three years since our initial shoot, and it was amazing to see how the characters’ lives have changed and improved since we first met them.
MM: How were you able to get Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame to be interviewed? It seemed kind of lucky because it was on the last day of shooting, right?
LWH: Originally, the idea of interviewing Paul Kagame sounded like a pipe dream to me. But as I encountered numerous perpetrators of the genocide who had been freed because of President Kagame’s decision, I knew that we had to have the President involved. I began asking around about this idea, as Rwanda is a small country where everyone knows everyone. A friend who worked in the Rwandan film industry gave me the phone number to one of the President’s personal assistants, and so I cold-called her. She was incredibly nice to me on the phone, but politely declined my request for an interview. I told her that I had the support of the Rwandan ambassador the United States, who was Zac Nsenga at the time. Little did I know that the president’s aide and the ambassador to the U.S. were old friends. Unbeknownst to me, she called him to see if I was legit. On the final day of shooting—literally the day that the crew was flying out of the country—I received a phone call in the morning from President Kagame’s office saying that if I came immediately, I could have an interview with him.
In the end, he stunned me by giving us a half-hour interview. Afterwards, his assistant said, “We’re so sorry we called you out of the blue and right at lunch time; you must be starved. So we’ve asked the President’s chef to prepare a meal for you.” We sat down to a delicious lunch served on gold-rimmed china and ate until we absolutely had to leave to go to the airport! It was awesome.
MM: You’ve obviously been touched by the making of this documentary. You helped create Living Bricks, an organization dedicated to providing Rwandans with the tools and materials necessary to build homes. How successful has this organization been? Have you seen a big support here in the U.S.?
LWH: As I screened As We Forgive across the U.S. over the past year, many audience members started asking me how they could get involved in the reconciliation movement in Rwanda. One of the projects I feature in the movie is a house-building project run by Prison Fellowship Rwanda. Repentant ex-genocide prisoners who are seeking to reconcile with their communities are building homes for their victims’ families as a symbol of practical reconciliation. The result is the completion of these unbelievable villages where killers are living side-by-side with survivors through reconciliation. I decided to partner with Prison Fellowship International and use the momentum of the movie to build another village like the one in the movie. The result is the Living Bricks Campaign (www.LivingBricksCampaign.org) where people can give toward the building of a house in the new Living Bricks village. We have seen considerable support for the project since we launched it a few months ago, but we still have a long way to go to build an entire village!
MM: The Rwandan government wants a copy of your film in every school. Can you describe how that feels? How are the efforts going to make that possible?
LWH: One of my biggest dreams has been to take As We Forgive back to Rwanda to share it on a national level with the people who are actually living out the reconciliation process. It’s a deeply complex issue in Rwanda, and one that many people do not talk openly about. I was encouraged by my Rwandan friends to start an initiative in Rwanda to use the film to help spark a national conversation about the process of reconciliation. Through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation we’ve been able to hire a managing director of the As We Forgive (AWF) Rwanda Initiative and form a Rwandan-led steering committee made up of government and NGO leaders involved in reconciliation. The purpose is to screen the film in prisons, schools, universities, churches and villages all over the country through the fall of 2009. We’re in the process of training teams of volunteer facilitators to lead discussions after each screening, and have developed discussion and training guides for this purpose. On July 3, we launched this initiative by premiering As We Forgive in the national basketball stadium, where nearly 5,000 Rwandans packed into the venue to watch the film. It was a totally different experience watching it with so many people who endured the genocide. Their reactions, the murmurings, the applause, the conversations—all of it amounted to one of the greatest nights of my life.
MM: This started as a thesis project and now it’s being supported by the Rwandan government, being shown in places like the U.S. Congress, is televised on PBS worldwide and has recently been released on DVD. What is your biggest goal and dream for this documentary now?
LWH: When I first began this project, I knew that the subject matter had global, even transcendent, significance. Rwanda was a wasteland of destruction 15 years ago, reeking from the stench of nearly one million rotting bodies destroyed by the genocide. Today, Rwanda is teaching the rest of us how to put aside divisions and focus on unity, peace and hope through forgiveness. Out of a place of such misery and death has risen an epic story of redemption, and that’s what I wanted to communicate to audiences. But I had no idea how to do that!
Over the past year or so since the film’s completion, I’ve learned an incredible amount about how to use a movie to make an impact, and I’m committed to continue bringing this story of radical forgiveness to as many people across the world as possible. When I look back at the milestones you mention in your question, I am amazed that we’ve ever gotten this far with a movie that had such small budget. But I think some films are just meant to happen and this was, thankfully, one of them. I am eternally grateful for any measure of success we’ve been able to achieve, and I hope that the story can continue to permeate the hearts of people across the world. My ultimate goal is for a global tour, screening the film in post-conflict regions across the world where reconciliation might offer some hope. Our pilot is the AWF Rwanda Initiative happening now, and if this effort is successful, then I’m hopeful we’ll find the means to take it across the globe.