As Genocide Prevention Month fades into recent memory and we conclude the Days of Remembrance, our nation’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust, I can’t help but feel so thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to meet so many passionate and inspiring individuals around this country.
A few weeks ago Justin and I had the pleasure of visiting Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs where the teachers and students opened our eyes and touched our hearts in an incredible way. A few weeks ago I wrote about how overwhelming it can be at times to grasp the horror that is genocide — the gravity and enormity of the crime is so incomprehensible with the death figures reaching into the tens of millions in the 20th century alone. What does a million people look like? 10 million? 50 million? As these figures grow larger, it becomes tougher to quantify and easier to forget that these are not merely numbers but actual people – real human beings whose lives have been taken away from us.
But when we visited Pine Creek, that indefinable and intangible dimension of genocide was forever changed.
Over the next couple of weeks I will be co-authoring a multi-part blog series in collaboration with some of the incredible students and teachers I met in Colorado Springs. Their commitment to this important cause is unyielding; their determination to fight the injustice, intolerance and hatred we see in the world around us has given me a renewed sense of optimism and purpose; and as we begin to envision a future without genocide and mass atrocities, the Pink Creek community exemplifies the fact that there is a lot we can learn from one another.
It all began with The Rice Experience and my new friend, Mrs. Rickard. A teacher by profession and fearless anti-genocide warrior by choice, Mrs. Rickard conceived of The Rice Experience back in 2007. She was searching for a way to explain to her students the massive number of people who have suffered and perished due to acts of genocide, violence, disease, and torture in the past 100 years.
In Mrs. Rickard’s own words:
I have been teaching about genocide for more than 10 years. I have shared facts, played videos of bodies piled high, read stories of children being gunned down, and then it all changed when Justin Semahoro Kimenyerwa shared his story. My world was suddenly shaken of old conceptions I had entertained. This was a young man who had walked through the footage in the films, lived the stories I was reading, and was a living witness to the statistics we recount without thinking. I have been presenting the numbers for years now in piles of rice, each individual grain representing one life that has been lost to genocide. I believe that understanding what millions truly means is important so that we can begin to realize the influence of one person. As we counted grains in a ¼ cup of rice we soon realized that it would take 24 ten-pound bags of rice just to represent the six million Jews that perished in The Holocaust. To show the atrocities of all the recent genocides, it takes over 600 pounds of rice. Each time I pour the millions of grains out for this lesson I am brought to tears. Our hatred for those we see as different has ended the potential of so many incredible people. How is it that we do not see each other as brothers and sisters, as one human family?
I have always visualized the individual g rains as actual people, actual lives, individual hopes and dreams, individual personalities, but now here sat Justin. If no one had stepped in to save his life, if no one had seen him as their brother, his life would have been just one more grain upon the floor. Just hours before, Justin and I had sat on a couch exchanging stories, sharing tears and laughter, and more importantly realizing that even though we had only known each other a few short hours, we were family. We so often focus on the things society has taught are dividing factors, and yet here was someone that laughed at the same things I did, felt pain just as deeply as I did, and loved with all of his heart.
The power of hate for Tutsi had almost taken this man’s life. He had watched others die before his eyes, and now we sat with millions of grains of rice on the floor, and I knew the word survivor had more meaning that any definition can hold. One grain of rice like Hitler can cause The Holocaust, but one grain of rice can also be the person who saves a life, a life like that of Justin. We all have influence; it is just a matter of where we choose to direct our actions minute to minute. There will always be those who will add to the piles of hate, but to honor the survivors who live on, I choose to use my one grain of influence to stand for justice, hope, and reach out to make a difference in the lives of others. How we use our influence matters, let us build a world where we recognize the value and connectedness of this human family.
I have vivid memories of looking around the classroom as Mrs. Rickard and the other teachers continued pouring bags and bags of rice on the floor. The emotion in the room was palpable. Students were crying, shaking their heads in disbelief. There was so much rice on that floor. I remember thinking to myself that the worst was behind us – how could this experience get any more emotional.
And then it happened . . .
Mrs. Rickard stood over the piles of rice and said, “And if you still think that genocide doesn’t affect your life…if you still think it’s far away, I want you all to know that one of your fellow classmates here at Pine Creek . . . her family is also in this pile.”
There was a long pause, a moment which seemed to last for an eternity. It’s a moment that I will not soon forget.
“Your fellow Pine Creek classmate, Sahza…her family was killed in the genocide in Bosnia…”
The room went completely silent as everyone processed that the crime of genocide had in fact reached their small town in Colorado – it was no longer a far away concept, no longer happening only to people thousands of miles away.
Stay tuned for the next installment of this multi-part blog series where Sahza will be sharing some of her experiences.
By Kate Goodman
Last week at the Tribeca Film Festival, I had the privilege of seeing the film Grey Matter (Matière Grise). Written and directed by Kivu Ruhorahoza, Grey Matter is actually the first feature length narrative film made in Rwanda by a Rwandan filmmaker. After reading the small synopsis provided by the film festival, I was still unsure of what kind of movie Grey Matter would be and what kind of story it would tell. I was pleasantly surprised to see a visually striking, incredibly thoughtful, and profound film. (Grey Matter received a Special Jury Mention at Tribeca for “for its audacious and experimental approach, this film speaks of recent horrors and genocide with great originality.” The Jury “wanted to give a special commendation to this filmmaker for his courage and vision.”) While watching the film, I kept coming back to Jacqueline’s story in The Last Survivor. “The burden of surviving,” as Jacqueline described her feelings following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and how Rwandans’ manage their burden is the heart of Grey Matter.
The film contains three separate, yet intertwining, stories each with very different main subjects. The film opens on Balthazar, a young filmmaker attempting to find funding for his newest project, but who is met with roadblocks at every turn. He tries to petition the government for a grant, but is turned down because his film focuses too much on the past. Balthazar’s government contact explains that the government would rather look forward, to positive projects like government’s new AIDS awareness programs or their efforts to combat domestic violence, instead of backwards to the genocide. Kivu Ruhorahoza explained in a Q&A after the screening that Balthazar is a representation of himself and his own struggle to get his film made. Kivu finally found financial support in an Australian production company and finished his film there.
The second vignette is Balthazar’s film, which portrays a man locked in a mental institution, simply known as “the Madman.” The Madman relives the genocide in his room, conveyed by his interactions with a literal cockroach he captured in a glass jar (cockroach was a commonly used epithet during the genocide used to dehumanize Tutsi’s). The Madman, clearly a murderer during the genocide, represents the section of the Rwandan population that was not only complacent to, but also actively took part in the genocide. Kivu uses this section of the film, through the Madman’s delusions, to illustrate what Rwanda was like leading up to and during the genocide. He hears the now infamous radio broadcasts encouraging citizens to “hunt the cockroaches” and sees hands come through his barred window to applaud his rape of the captured cockroach. (Kivu makes his position on the international communities’ role in the genocide evident when the segment ends with the first pair of white hands to come through the Madman’s window giving him the keys to his room and let him loose.)
The final and longest section of the film portrays Yvan and Justine, brother and sister Survivors, years after the genocide trying to rebuild their lives. Yvan, portrayed by Ramadhan “Shami” Bizimana who won Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film at Tribeca, suffers from intense Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, constantly wears a motorcycle helmet decorated in American paraphernalia, and cannot leave their bleak home. Justine (who Kivu explains in this interview with the director represents strong Rwandan women) holds what remains of their family together by selling herself to pay for her brother’s medical bills. In the Q&A, Kivu explained that he began writing this particular story in the immediate aftermath of the genocide as a way of dealing with his own survivor’s guilt. Sent away to stay with his ailing grandmother, Kivu was not present during the genocide while the rest of his family remained in Kigali and suffered the genocide first hand. Getting this film made and out for the world to see has been his mission ever since.
Grey Matter offers a rare narrative insight into the “burden of surviving” for multiple sectors of the Rwandan population. Kivu transformed his catharsis into a poignant representation of how genocide so deeply impacts individuals and how survivors manage to move on. During the screening, I also wondered how this film, being the first feature length fictional film from Rwanda, will impact not only the Rwandan people, but also Rwandan culture. Following the film, Kivu spoke briefly about the state of filmmaking in Rwanda today. New institutions are being formed to sponsor more filmmaking endeavours, from documentaries to short and feature length narrative film. Speaking as a huge film fanatic and someone who deeply understands how film both reflects and impacts a national culture, I hope that more films will continue to be made as Rwandans rebuild and grapple with the “burden of surviving.”
Grey Matter Trailer: