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Michael King's Documentary The Rescuers Visits the Sites of Tragedy

Rwandan anti-genocide activist Stephanie Nyombayire (on right) and English Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert.
Rwandan anti-genocide activist Stephanie Nyombayire (on right) and English Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert.
© 2011 Michael King Productions

Beautifully shot in gold and red, The Rescuers makes the aftermath of genocide look awfully attractive, and the slow-motion footage of massacre appears positively nostalgic.

Add in silent, Masterpiece Theater–style re-enactments of European life during World War II, and this very serious film sometimes feels like a farce.

Structured around a train journey across Europe, Michael King's documentary follows Rwandan anti-genocide activist Stephanie Nyombayire and English Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert as they visit sites of tragedy and learn about the diplomats who acted against government orders and risked their lives to rescue Jewish families.

Gilbert is clearly in charge. Unlike Nyombayire, he is an E.U. citizen and does not face visa difficulties, but the implicitly troubling power structure between them — of a titled white man who has only studied genocide presuming to teach a young black woman who has lived through it how to heal her country — is never fully addressed. Though they traveled together for over a month, Gilbert is depicted as a talking-head expert, while Nyombayire is only allowed a few moments to reflect.

Experts on Holocaust history and a number of survivors tell their stories, but the most vibrant, urgent scenes are not in libraries and museums, or in re-enactments, but in the streets, when Gilbert and Nyombayire speak as peers and when Nyombayire walks alone in Kigali, remembering her murdered friends and discussing her country's future. If only Gilbert had visited her there; perhaps he, and the viewer, would have learned more as well.

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