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Raoul Peck knew he didn’t want to make a thriller out of genocide. And he didn’t want to build a tearjerker around one brave heroic figure, like the character Don Cheadle plays in Hotel Rwanda. In fact, Peck wasn’t sure he wanted to take on a project about Rwanda at all. Amazingly, HBO Films proposed the idea to him a few years ago after the network ran Lumumba, his critically lauded biopic about the prime minister of Congo who was assassinated in 1961. Peck (who was born in Haiti and raised in Congo and France) hesitated to take on another heavy African subject, but eventually agreed to write and direct Sometimes in April after an investigative trip to Rwanda.
“The day after my arrival I went to this memorial at a small church,” Peck explains by phone from his room at the Four Seasons Hotel. “The walls still had the grenade holes, and the floor was still covered with clothes and belongings. Outside they had all the skeletons. I was alone there, and I felt so small. It was an existential moment. I felt like even my previous films didn’t mean anything.”
Sometimes in April flips between April 1994—the month Rwanda began its descent into chaos, with Hutus slaughtering an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and more moderate Hutus—and April 2004. The 10th anniversary of the genocide, it was an occasion for Rwandans to contemplate, the U.N. to hold justice tribunals, and American officials to apologize for our failure to intervene. Although the film occasionally veers into melodrama and didactic dialogue, it gradually rises above these flaws to tell a nuanced story of a historical moment via two Hutu brothers. Neither of them can be clearly classified as champions or monsters: They are just two complicated men tangled up in the mess.
In 1994, Augustin (played by The Wire‘s Idris Elba) is an army general married to a Tutsi woman. He doesn’t participate in the massacres, yet he also fails to take action or protect his family. As Peck points out, “He is a totally passive hero, closer to the majority of people who never believed things would get so bad.” Brother Honore (Oris Erhuero), on the other hand, is a popular DJ on a hate radio station, exhorting Hutu listeners to massacre their Tutsi neighbors. “During the genocide, radio was a precise instrument. They would say, ‘Go to the corner of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, Mr. So-and-So is still alive, what are you doing?’ It was that exact.” Now standing trial at the 2004 U.N. war crimes tribunal, Honore asks his brother to visit him—a kind of micro-reconciliation that Peck cleverly embeds within the more panoramic vision of national reconciliation.
These days, killers who lopped off neighbors’ heads with machetes live side by side with survivors. Peck employed many locals while shooting on location in Rwanda and admits that he felt slightly uneasy at first, not knowing what role his Rwandan crew members played in the events of ’94. “For the first week you can’t avoid thinking, ‘Where was this person?’ But you can’t ask people! First, it’s very impolite. And second, this is a human being, so you make your opinion based on how they act with you. That’s how it has to be.”
This open-ended quality bleeds through in Sometimes in April, which takes grand leaps between the lives of its characters and the larger questions of global responsibility. Peck contrasts the intimate horrors of Kigali residents with the dry machinations of Washington bureaucrats and the everyday lives of oblivious Americans. He nails it perfectly when he juxtaposes visuals of the melee in Rwanda with an American radio broadcast burbling about Kurt Cobain’s April ’94 suicide. Peck says he deliberately fractured the narrative to break out of the usual glossy movie structure. “Hollywood knows how to get you so emotionally involved that you have no space for your own thinking. I could have had you crying the whole time, but I wanted to make a movie that didn’t shut my brain out.”