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?