With a death rate of 10,000 per day over a period of 100 days, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda is one of the century’s worst crimes against humanity. It’s also one of the most misunderstood. One powerful argument set forth by Deborah Scranton in her new film, Earth Made of Glass, is that European nations, particularly France, are more firmly implicated in the tragedy than is generally acknowledged. And, Scranton also argues, it's not Europeans who are solving Rwanda's problems now. Earth Made of Glass sees Rwandans themselves building a road out of the crisis, painful brick by painful brick. Scranton’s film tells two stories—one man searching out the circumstances of his father’s death, and a new political regime laying the groundwork for peace. Scranton’s innovative approach to her previous film, The War Tapes brought her TED-talk renown; she put cameras in the hands of soldiers themselves to create a multifaceted story out the U.S. war in Iraq. Equally forward-thinking Earth Made of Glass plucks the Rwandan story out of the "tribal conflict" matrix supplied by first-world media, situates it within a colonially complicated past and homes in on the authentic struggles of individuals in the present day. Scranton spoke with me over the phone on her way from New Hampshire to San Francisco for a special September 30 San Francisco Film Society screening and discussion about documentary film and investigative journalism. The panel, moderated by Phil Bronstein, features Scranton; Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting; and Mathilde Mukantabana, president of Friends of Rwanda, at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema.
SF360: It’s a very moving set of stories. How did you become involved with this project?
Deborah Scranton: I ended up getting invited to a dinner that President Kagame was at. As you can imagine, getting introduced, ‘Oh, Deborah’s a filmmaker. She does movies about war,’ we started talking. He asked me about my former work. He started talking about what his vision for Rwanda post-genocide was. I was intrigued because I’d been haunted by these questions: What happens after war ends? What does it look like? How do you stop conflict from perpetuating? That was a foundation for a conversation. I did The War Tapes; Iraq was a quagmire of conflict. You have this country, Rwanda, trying to forge a path forward without conflict. How does it look? At the end of the conversation I really felt committed to the concept of trying to tell the story of what had happened post-genocide in Rwanda.
SF360: With other documentaries and one major feature film on the Rwandan genocide, what are the most important arguments you’d like to get across? Your film offers much more backstory about France’s involvement in Rwanda, arming it, training fighters. What is the most important feeling for audiences to take away from the film?
Scranton: For me the epiphany of the film was Jean Pierre [Sagahutu] saying he didn’t have to forgive the killers, all he had to do was not kill who killed his father and not teach hatred to his children. He didn’t have to forgive what had happened. It’s not in the film, but in an interview, he had said he didn’t think it was his place to forgive. And if he were to forgive his father’s killer it would be taking something away from his father. Which I understand. For me, it was this lightning-bolt moment. If you think of these places stuck in retribution/conflict, the concept of not having to forgive is actually liberating. If instead of asking them to forgive and get along, you just said, don’t kill each other, don’t teach hatred, it might be a blueprint to end cycles of violence. That is amazing. that was the greatest gift of making this film.
SF360: What’s generalizable about this situation; what’s unique to it?
Scranton: I don’t want to ghettoize Rwanda any more than it has been. It’s true that it had amore efficient kill rate than WWII: 10,000 per day, for 100 days. More than 9/11 for a hundred days. For me, when I thought of it in that metric, it was truly staggering. For Darfur, do you know who the first country was to send troops in? Rwanda. They really meant Never Again. This is a tangential thing, but when you think of women in government in the world, who do you think leads the in women in representation in government? Rwanda. It’s this minefield of unexplained facts when you actually go there and see it. For me, I think that’s amazing.
SF360: Had you done other work in Africa?
Scranton: Never. It was my first trip. We went three times for close to a month each time. September, November, and April.
SF360: Did you face difficulties there?
Scranton: There have been a lot of recent anti-President Kagame articles that have come out, in the United Nations report and all elsewhere. It’s very difficult for me to reconcile with, having been there, travelling half the country, being available for people to talk to me. In general feeling like I had a sense of what was going on.... There is overwhelming support for President Kagame. He’s brought peace, roads, clean everything. I just find it so interesting that outside Rwanda that there’s all this criticism of him, but if you’re in Rwanda, you don’t hear it. It’s not because of self-censorship. You’re there; it’s a modern, wonderful place to be.
SF360: Where do you think the criticism is coming from?
Scranton: It’s a really complicated question; I can tell you while we were there, the main reporter from the New York Times stayed in the hotel we were staying at and had people brought to him. And then we would read these stories. My feeling would be: Where are the photos? Where are the documents? Where’s the proof? (I haven’t been there in the past year; my film’s meant to be a film, not commenting on the current politics.) But when you see the UN report issued, and read that it was Kofi Annan’s last big project that he wanted funded, you obviously look back and see the failure of him to act during the genocide. You ask, in those testimonies, how many people did they talk to to get those testimonies. For me having been in Rwanda and telling the stories of survivors, and how the NY Times got the story wrong the first time around—how the refugees were actually the killers—I don’t know. It certainly deserves more than one or two levels of questions....
For my film, it’s really important, there’s not a white face in it. As politically incorrect as that may sound. I wanted to really tell it from the perspective of the leaders of a country searching for justice and an Everyman searching for the truth of his father’s killer. Obviously, Jean Pierre’s story is representative of hundreds of thousands of people looking for the story of the deaths of their relatives. It was intriguing to me to tell the dual narrative.
SF360: With The War Tapes, you offered filmmaking equipment to soldiers. What were the challenges/rewards of working under that process?
Scranton: For me, the truth resides in contrasting ground-level narratives, versus a written narration perspective. Anyone can formulate a thesis and go and do interviews and make a film that supports a thesis. For me, what’s really interesting is to be presented with an idea or a concept, and then go on the ground or in the case of The War Tapes, talk to soldiers who are on the ground and hear what their perspective is without a preconceived outcome. The idea is one of telling a story from the inside out versus the outside in, and having faith that the audience can look at contrasting ground-level narratives and make up their own minds. As an example, that scene with Jean Pierre with Gaspard. You’re all set to be set up: OK, this is the bad guy. Then you find out that his wife was a Tutsi who was killed. It spawns these other questions: Why was he killing? To me that is much more valuable than just having a neat story tied up with a bow.
SF360: You were a member of the U.S. national ski team. How does your life as an athlete, and your journalistic life covering sports and the outdoors figure into your filmmaking?
Scranton: My transition from U.S. ski team athlete to television and film was working for the networks covering major sporting events like the Olympics. That’s where I learned about a multicamera filming platform with the idea that you can’t cover an entire race with one camera. That was what spawned the idea of having all those camera and doing a virtual embed in Iraq. I was used to being an AD, with headsets, covering an event top to bottom. The idea was to cover a war and get a multifaceted view. Hopefully, it would be not truer, but multifaceted. For me, the approach to Earth Made of Glass; was a similar concept. I was fortunate to have a head of state give his view and an ordinary citizen give his view. Which I hope is one plus one equals more than two as far as what you take away from it.
SF360: Do you feel Rwanda is truly moving forward?
Scranton: Absolutely. When you go there, it is an amazing country. It is so beautiful. The people are so welcoming. And you can truly see it’s like a phoenix rising from the ashes. I was at a reintegration camp three miles from the Congo border. They were being fed and clothed. They learned to read and write there. The applause for those diplomas, that’s what that was: It was for them to be able to go back home to their villages. As President Kagame says in the film, he believes that if they [the killers] were given a different choice, they would have chosen it.
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