Acquaro’s Rwanda Film Earned Academy Nomination

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It is said  “… though God travels the world during the day, Rwanda is so beautiful that God returns at night to sleep in Rwanda…â€? “God Sleeps in Rwandaâ€? is a film close to the heart of filmmakers Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman.  It documents the lives of five courageous Rwandan women who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide which left the country nearly 70% female. 

“I worked in East Africa doing print journalism since 2000. After listening to the Rwandan women’s powerful and moving stories, I knew I had to make a film documenting them,â€? recalled Acquaro. “Screenwriter Stacy Sherman and I went to Rwanda in 2003.  It was my 5th trip.  I had already decided upon the five women who would be in the film.  I shot images of the country and interviewed the women. It took two weeks. Upon returning to the States, I began the editing process. What I thought would take a few months, became a 2 year project,â€? explained the charismatic filmmaker.

The genocide in Rwanda was widely reported erroneously, and in a pejorative manner as “tribalâ€? in nature. The people shared both the same language and religion. The Tutsi were cattle owners from the north and the Hutus, who constitute the vast majority, farmers from the south. Five percent of the indigenous Twa people make up the remaining population. Primarily, the entire populace lived together in harmony. The educated Tutsi were the monarchy thus if there was fighting it consisted primarily between different Tutsi clans. The Tutsis, as the ruling elite and due to the discrimination under the Belgian rule, were educated while the Hutu majority, were denied access.  However, after the Belgians colonized the region, they started oppressing the local people, insisting on defining what distinguished a Tutsi from a Hutu. This created a division that had not existed previously. The Belgians began measuring noses; declaring those with wide noses, darker skin, and lesser money as Hutu. They then institutionalized this ethnic division by forcing people to carry identity cards.

Eventually, the Flemish priests declared this division wrong and encouraged the Hutus to rise up against the Tutsi. During the early 1960s, nationalism gained ground in much of Africa. The few educated Hutus started demanding independence and open elections—one man, one vote, believing this was the only way that Hutus could also exercise power. In fact, the Tutsi monarch, or Mwami, at the time, opposed early independence, fearing that one-man one-vote would end the monarchy.  When the less educated Hutus came to power, they sought to force the Tutsi out of the country. There was a violent uprising that ended the monarchy, during which thousands of Tutsis were massacred and thousands more fled the country. Those Hutus and Tutsi who intermarried were now told intermarriage was wrong.  Gregoire Kayibanda, a Hutu, became the first elected president of Rwanda. He was later overthrown by General Juvenal Habyarimana, also a Hutu.

The dictator Habyarimana who had been in power for nearly 20 years considered the more educated Tutsis a threat, although eventually he did agree to sign a peace accord after Tutsi rebels trained in and backed by Uganda gained ground. Certain factions within the country disapproved and upon returning from the accords in Tanzania, Habyarimana’s plane was shot down. His death began the mass slaughter of the Tutsi and of any Hutu who disagreed with the genocide. The first to be killed was the moderate Hutu female prime minister who refused to support the genocide. The slaughter went on for 100 days. 

Fearful Hutu men and women were told: “get the Tutsi before they get you.â€? As a result, the Hutu population picked up machetes and killed Tutsi who formerly were their family, friends, and neighbors. Nearly a million men, women, and children were murdered. The killers threw children down wells, raped women, and pillaged villages.  250,000 women were raped deliberately to infect them with HIV in order to infect the next generation.  Many of whom are currently dying of AIDS.  Others were impregnated by their families’ murderers.

Acquaro’s film features five women; survivors of the murders and rapes, who after the genocide returned to their villages to rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, FiFi Nuyangoga, who was raped, died in 2003 before the film was completed, after succumbing to AIDS.  She and her friend Chantal Kantarama were repeatedly raped by soldiers and though Chantal didn’t get AIDS, FiFi did. Chantal nursed FiFi until her death, assuaging FiFi’s greatest fear of dying alone.

Joseline Mujawamariya, then 17, hid in tall grass with her brother and twin sister watching the rampage and burning of fields.  She survived scavenging food off corpses until the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front sweep through the country and drove out the Hutus.   Now, 25, Joseline is the head of development for her village. Delphine Umutesi was 10, when her parents were butchered. The eldest of five, Delphine found herself the head of her household. After the genocide she returned to her home only to find women couldn’t inherit property.  In 1999, Parliament passed a law allowing women to inherit land thus allowing Delphine to own her home.  Delphine now supports her family making greeting cards. Odette Mukakabera’s husband gave her AIDS.  She passed it onto one of her children.  A teacher before the genocide, Odette is now one of the few female police officers, a job formerly held only by men.  Severa Mukakinani watched her seven children murdered. She was gang rapped, cut, and thrown in the river to die. She survived to find she was impregnated by the rapes. She kept her beloved child naming her Akimana, “Child of God.â€?

What is most extraordinary is that these women, who before the genocide were under the rigors of a patriarchal society, are now free to become leaders within their communities.  The aftermath of the slaughter left both Hutus and Tutsi women without husbands.  Tutsi survivors found themselves having to unite in order to rebuild their country, even though it meant working side-by-side with the very women who slaughtered their families. The remorseless Pauline Nyiramusuhuko, Rwanda’s Minister for Family and Women’s Affairs is currently the first woman to be tried for war crimes for personally directing her son and squads of Hutu men to torture, rape, and butcher Tutsi men and women. In contradiction, Pauline’s murderous son protected and hid a Tutsi girl in the basement of his unwitting mother’s home. 

Today, 12 years after the genocide, 50% of women attend college and 49% make-up Parliament.
“I am so moved by the courage and dignity of these women, I feel privileged to record their stories.  This film is not the end, it’s the beginning.  I am helping to set up a cottage industry called the Teddy Bear Project to help these women survive,â€? stated Kimberlee.  “My life has changed as a result of meeting these women and it will never be the same again.â€? 
“God Sleeps in Rwanda� was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in 2005.

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