Cut Down the Tall Trees
The code Hutu extremists used over the radio to start the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was “it’s time to cut down the tall trees.” The not-so-subtle propagation had some literal implications, as machetes were the weapon of choice to slaughter their taller, fairer skinned country men, women and children labeled Tutsi. A hundred days later, more than 800,000 people were murdered at a rate of every 10-12 seconds (primarily by hand). Many people, including myself, heard relatively nothing about this until a decade later when Hollywood made a film called Hotel Rwanda that explored just one of the million stories during that affair.
I’m going into all this detail for a number of reasons. First, today we took half our class (those with the means and availability) on a field trip to a feature film being shot in Rwanda about the genocide. The film is called Opération Turquoise about a French refugee camp/militarized “safe zone” set-up with an awkward, ambiguous mission to help Rwandans almost three months after the genocide began. The operation arguably did more harm than good, at least according to UNAMIR commander in Rwanda General Roméo Dallaire, a UN independent inquiry after the fact and almost everyone else except the French President. Controversy, of course, makes for great cinema.
Raymond, my co-founding partner, has a speaking role playing a field commander of the RPF (the “rebel” army that stopped the genocide on July 4th – the anniversary and now national holiday for which we arrived in Rwanda no less). The film is in the final two days of shooting and almost 300 extras were needed for today’s scene, including 200 demobilized Rwanda soldiers, French soldiers, and some 50 children. During the scene, the outnumbered French military are ambushed by the RPF, who don’t fire because of the children the French are transporting (and because they were not necessarily combating them). Raymond’s character, however, pulls the mayor of a Rwandan town highly suspected of perpetrating the genocide out of a truck and personally executes him on the spot.
This of course is what was scheduled, but a rather pesky real tree that wouldn’t co-operate in being cut down – actually blown up by explosive – made the crew run way over schedule. When the tree did fall to create a road block, of course the cameras weren’t rolling. The class helped hoist it back up the hill, but only to have it fall unceremoniously again to the laughter of all the spectators. It was actually re-assuring to show that things never go as planned even on a film with a multi-million dollar budget.
However, the students were able to see some large-scale rehearsals with extras for the ambush, with one student explaining to me “that’s not really the way they do it”. Just two years ago, he was traveling with some friends back to Burundi from the Congo when his vehicle was ambushed at the border. He was shot in both legs helping his friends get back into the van, but walks fine today because the bullets didn’t break any bones (his friends weren’t so lucky). This was 2005, a year before a peace treaty was signed ending the Burundian civil war. I’m starting to forget what’s film and what’s reality over here.