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M.J. Daugherty Written by M.J. Daugherty
Feb. 7, 2006 | 12:14 AM

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An Interview with the filmmakers behind ?GOD SLEEPS IN RWANDA?



Interview by M.J. Daugherty

It?s a sure sign that something is shifting in Hollywood when a nature movie about penguins can earn over $77 million at the box office.  Documentaries seemed to be everywhere you turned in 2005, and, more importantly, the genre finally seems to be receiving notice from mainstream audiences.  This year?s Academy Award nominations reflect the diversity of the past year?s releases with a group of powerful films in both the feature documentary and documentary short categories. 

FilmRadar?s M.J. Daugherty spoke with filmmakers Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman about their work on their Oscar nominated documentary short, God Sleeps in Rwanda, which tells the stories of several Rwandan women as they seek to heal and rebuild their lives and their country ten years after its devastating genocide. 

Many Americans are familiar with the Rwandan genocide to some extent, thanks to projects like Hotel Rwanda, but not as many people are aware of the role of women in the war and rebuilding process.  Did you go into the process of making this documentary wanting to focus on that particular subject, or did it grow out of the interviews? 

Acquaro:  My focus was always Rwanda?s women. But it evolved over my trips there to focus solely on survivors and their efforts overcome their grief and loss and rebuild their lives and their country. I read a tiny one column story in ?Ms. Magazine? in 1996 about Hutu and Tutsi women who had repatriated Rwanda after the genocide and were building schools, homes, and starting businesses together. Intrigued, I went to Rwanda in 2000 while working on a story for ?Time Magazine? in Kenya. I learned that after the genocide the country was left nearly 70% female, and the statistics astounded me.  Before the genocide boys outnumbered girls in school by 9 to 1 but today boys and girls are in school in equal numbers. When I first visited, Rwandan women, who pre-genocide made up barely 5 % of national leadership, were a third of the parliament and today are about half, among if not the highest percentage of women parliamentarians in the world.  I was awarded a Pew Fellowship in 2001 for my proposal on Rwandan women?s role in the reconstruction and reconciliation of the country. There I interviewed and photographed more than 20 women, from Ministers to Mayors to rural Tutsi women raising Hutu orphans.  In the 6 weeks that I spent there on that trip I realized that the story was women survivors of the genocide and their courage and hope in the face of the tragedy they had endured.

How did you meet the women whose stories you chronicle in the film?

Sherman:  Kimberlee had met them on her previous trip to Rwanda.  She had established a relationship with each of them and a certain trust with each so that they were very warm to us upon our arrival.

Acquaro:  Our translator, Norah Bagirinka, who we brought to the U.S. with the help of Amnesty International and who now has asylum here, was the first woman I met in Rwanda. She had organized a conference on women in local government. Joseline Mujawamariya [one of the women interviewed in the film] spoke there. When approached as a guest speaker for the conference, Joseline was afraid that she wouldn?t have anything important enough to say to all of those women but reluctantly agreed to come. She was the star of the conference that was attended by rural women from all over Rwanda as well as the First Lady, Jeannette Kagame, and many Ministers and government leaders. When I arrived [in Rwanda] it was the women themselves who introduced me to other women, from survivors of rape raising children of those rapes to women business owners and parliamentarians.  My husband, Peter Landesman, and I returned to Rwanda for several months to do the story for the ?NY Times Magazine.? I visited the women I?d met on my previous trips and shared the articles and photographs with them. Norah worked with us. I met and photographed another 30 women on that trip including the First Lady and President Kagame.

What was it about these particular women?s stories that drew you to them as subjects? 

Sherman: Each of these women had a horrible experience - yet each experience was very different.  And yet they weave together because they were all borne from the same unspeakable horror.

Acquaro:  These women?s stories were representative of what had happened to women all over Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. And their extraordinary determination to not merely survive but to change mend their own souls attending to the suffering of others, whether personally or politically, moved me. I also thought the arc of the stories reflected the arc of the country?s loss and redemption.  There was only one woman I had wanted to include that we did not have time to film, a Hutu mayor who had been married to a Tutsi man killed in the genocide. After the genocide she started a support group for survivors and was the only Hutu woman in the group.

Did you find that they were willing to share their stories, or were there any women who were reluctant to talk about there experiences during the war?   

Sherman: I would say that it was very difficult for them to discuss what they went through, and you could say that with each and every one of these women.  But because Kimberlee had established such extraordinary trust with them, I think it somehow made it possible for them to talk at all and actually retell what happened to them. 

Acquaro:  Very few of the women I met over several visits to Rwanda did not want to tell their stories. Although it was painful and traumatizing it mattered to them that the world that had abandoned them during the genocide cared about their plight. I spent many hours with the women we focused on doing more than reporting, sharing meals and pictures and stories. On each trip I went with only a translator, usually Norah, a genocide survivor herself.  Out of respect for the sensitive nature of the women?s stories we shot the film with no crew, no lights, no sound person, just Norah and ourselves. All of this helped the women feel that we cared.

You both have backgrounds in journalism.  Do you think that there is a difference between the roles of documentarians and journalists?  For instance, did either of you feel like you approached the subject matter in a different way than you would have as a journalist?

Sherman:  I think, personally, if I went in as a journalist there would have been more of an agenda, so to speak.  To find out the why or other ?answers.? When the truth is, there are few if any answers.  It is my hope that we honestly captured each woman in her own right. 

Acquaro:  I feel that this is an extension of my journalism. I was so incredibly inspired, moved and even changed by hearing these women tell their stories that I decided to do a documentary so that you could hear them tell you their stories, instead of reading my words or seeing my photographs.

How long did it take you to make this film, from the time you first started planning the project to its initial screening?  Did you run into any obstacles along the way?

Acquaro:  I began shooting B roll on my trip there in 2001. When I told Stacy that I was going back to do this documentary in 2003 she offered to work with me.

Sherman:  It has been a process of over two years now.  From the time we decided to go, through the filming itself, that was all very quick.  We were only there about eleven days.  And the decision to go was fairly immediate but we both felt like it was right.  There were stops and stars along the way with the editing.  Our editor, Craig Tanner, worked tirelessly but everyone had their schedules.  There were many times where things happened in post production where we thought, ?oh no?now what?? But things would happen, miracles literally, people going overboard to help for little, if any compensation.  But I would say it was people?s generosity, from Erik Magnus, a Sound Editor who came over the day before we left to give us a lesson in sound all the way up to Rosario Dawson who said she would narrate, without any question.  She just agreed to help.   

You?re using this film as a way to raise money to help with the rebuilding in Rwanda.  What are some other ways in which you hope people get involved after seeing your documentary?

Acquaro:  I am working to develop an income generating project with the women of AVEGA, an association of genocide widows and orphans, making teddy bears and blankets out of scraps of Rwanda?s beautiful traditional cloth. We are talking with several big retailers about forming a partnership with the women to sell them. We?d also like to return to Rwanda and show the women the film. We are re-editing the film for a Rwandan audience to focus on the accomplishments of the women and protect the confidentiality in Rwanda of the women raped.

Sherman:  I hope that people feel inspired in any way to help people in any way that they can. It would be incredible if they were to reach out towards the people of Rwanda but any kind of charity towards a single person or any organization is a positive and healing thing to do. 

To read more about this film and to view the official website click HERE.

Go see this film at the Aero Theatre on February 24th at 7:30pm and at the Egyptian Theatre March 2 - March 12, 2006! Stay tuned!