Beate Arnestad is proving to be one of Norway’s most interesting international filmmakers at the moment, writes Truls Lie. From addressing the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, she went on to track a major court case after the genocide in Rwanda. Her documentaries depict individuals under extreme pressure.

Truls Lie

Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.

Norwegian Erik Møse is the presiding judge of the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Møse is internationally renowned and highly respected. He has worked on determining the question of guilt for several years after the massacres that took place in 1994. In recent years, vast numbers of witnesses have been summoned – evidence is scarce, so the court has to depend on witness statements.

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Beate Arnestad (photo: Truls Lie)

Beate Arnestad’s feature documentary film Telling Truths in Arusha, which was shown at the Norwegian Documentary and Short Film Festival in June, follows the work of Møses and the ICTR. She is the first independent filmmaker to be granted access to the courtroom in Arusha (Tanzania). She tracks the court case against formerly highly respected Catholic priest, Father Hormisdas Nsengimana, who is accused of aiding and abetting the genocide in his role as spiritual leader and muse.

Telling Truths in Arusha is beautifully filmed by Linn Therese Amundsen, and alternates between areal filming of the landscape and close-ups. Typically African are the colourfully clad figures seen against a sunlit landscape – what more could a camera ask for?

We are shown a series of witness statements, interviews and depositions. Both prosecution and defence each summoned over 20 witnesses, who clearly have completely different interpretations of what Nsengimana actually did 16 years ago. Judge Møse tells Arnestad that the court’s job is to get as close to the truth as possible. The witness statements clearly show that someone is lying, that false testimony is being given out of fear or self-interest.

At one point, the judge and court personnel go to the church at Nyanza and Christ-Roi College where Nsengimana worked when the genocide took place. They look down into the church’s latrine, where 36 bodies were discovered in the mud in 1994 – many had been battered to death against an adjoining wall. Nyanza was also where the Hutus set up road blocks to prevent residents from fleeing their attackers: road blocks surrounded by corpses. The film tells the story of the old priest, Father Mathieu Ngirumpatse, who was killed as he tried to escape. He was left lying at the side of the road for days; his body was eaten by dogs. In response to the question of why he had neither buried nor held services for his Tutsi colleagues, Nsengimana reluctantly tells the court that he mentioned Father Ngirumpatse once during prayers a couple of days later.

The International Criminal Tribunal has only charged around eighty people in connection with the slaughter of almost one million human beings. The court’s focus has been on the ringleaders and the legal process will probably be concluded this year. But several other cases have been brought to local war tribunals around the country, where sentence has been passed on around 100,000 people.

Arnestad edits news footage from 1994 into the film showing piles of corpses and belligerent armed gangs. We also see the only known news clip of the genocide depicting Hutus battering Tutsis to death.

As we know from 1994, the brutal gangs separated out the Tutsis, and ran amok in a bloodthirsty frenzy wielding clubs and machetes. People identified each other, everybody knew who was who. Lists were made. The Tutsis were identified by their slender noses and fingers – Hutus have flat noses. In mixed families, the murderers would let Hutus escape, while they slaughtered their spouses and children.

The Belgian priest, Father Simons has been running an orphanage in Nyanza for forty years. In the film, he argues – like the UN – that Nsengimana bears a large part of the responsibility for the genocide due to the position he held at the time. Simons bemoans in the film interview the human proclivity towards creating classes and groups – he calls it the “disease” of humanity. During a church service, another priest, Andrew Sezerand, estimates that around 100,000 people were killed in Nsengimana’s district Nyanza.

Arnestad captures a telling moment in the film: Nsengimana mentions to his lawyer that there were fewer Tutsis living there than the number that were killed. His lawyer advises him not to say this in the witness box. Nsengimana is articulate, but not very credible.

Sentence is passed at the end of Arnestad’s film, four years from when she started the work. In actual fact, it took a year from the conclusion of the court case to clarify the question of guilt. The ruling was delivered 17th November 2009: “1. Genocide: Not Guilty. 2. Murder as a crime against humanity: Not Guilty. 3. Extermination as a crime against humanity: Not Guilty.”

We hear Father Nsengimana comment on the ruling: “Well done boys!” But as Arnestad said after the film’s screening here in Norway, it came as a surprise to everyone. The judges had put their trust in the defence’s 24 witnesses. They dismissed Chief Prosecutor Hassan B. Jallow’s 19 witnesses as lacking credibility.

Møse has now presided over 18 court cases in Rwanda – of which only three ended in acquittal. One of these was the case against Nsengimana. As Møse says to Arnestad’s camera, there was insufficient evidence and too few credible witnesses to prove that Nsengimana was responsible for the crimes.

The film ends with a shot of a crowd of angry protestors demonstrating against the acquittal of Nsengimana and a co-accused. Nsengimana is now living in Italy.

ARNESTAD’S FILM is an important one, but many directors before her have themastised the genocide in Rwanda. My first encounter with the Rwandan genocide was at the art festival Documenta X in 1997, where an “art video” depicted the exhuming of mass graves accompanied by the radio broadcasts from 1994 that urged on the slaughter: “The cockroaches are hiding in Kigali!” It made a grisly impression.

Another significant film about Rwanda that deserves a mention is Raoul Peck’s Sometimes in April (2005), which was shown during the Films from the South festival in 2008. Not only does it offer some beautiful cinematography of the hillsides, people, the mist and the green and brown landscape, but it also provides a more in-depth background to the events than Arnestad’s film does. Let me therefore just recap the historical context:

Sometimes in April review (2005)

For a long time, the Tutsis and Hutus of Rwanda shared the same religion, culture and language. But when Belgium took over the country from the Germans in 1916, they introduced brutal colonial rule complete with racial segregation and grotesque forms of exploitation. They elevated the status of the Tutsis, and in the process created a deep-seated “class hatred” amongst the Hutus. When the Belgians finally handed over control to the Hutu majority in 1959, decades of Tutsi segregation and massacre followed. Hundreds of thousands were forced into exile. Around 1990, some of these exiles founded the rebel group the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). From Uganda, they embarked on an offensive against the Hutu regime before the Hutus implemented the most widely-known genocide in recent history. On the first day they killed 8000, by the third day 30,000 corpses littered the ground, after two weeks there were almost 300,000. Rape was commonplace: “They’ll be dead by tomorrow anyway.”

In his film, Peck makes the following conclusion about Belgian colonial rule: “It was never about building a civilization, but about greed, arrogance and power. We discovered the atrocities too late.” He refers here also to the international trials and asks what difference it would make if tens of people are found guilty of these atrocities.

Another evocative film is the documentary Ghost of Rwanda. The film is about the Canadian UN General Romeo Dallaire who stayed behind in 1994, begging for reinforcements while other UN forces (like the Belgians) pulled out of the country. Tragically, the international community turned a deaf ear. In Ghost of Rwanda it is revealed that the Americans were not even prepared to block the frequency of the hate-radio channel RTML: their response was that jamming was illegal, expensive and a breach of freedom of expression, because “radio stations don’t kill people”. But the US had satellite images of new mass graves and knew what was going on. The film clearly points out how the Americans avoided responsibility by disingenuously refusing to use the term “genocide” because that would have demanded action. Kofi Annan headed the UN’s peacekeeping operations at the time.

In the feature film Shooting Dogs (2005), the UN also pulls out: French UN soldiers only gather together their own people (westerners) from a camp they had been protecting – leaving the camp undefended. The Hutus attack women and children. A priest is the main character here too, played by John Hurt as a compassionate and humane friend, in contrast to the one Nsengimana played in the court room in Arnestad’s film.

The genocide was only stopped after several months when the Tutsi rebel group RPF intervened from across the border. A ceasefire was declared much to the relief of the many terror-stricken Tutsis who crept out of their hiding places in the swamps.

Today, normality has returned to Rwanda. At least one lesson was learned: identity cards no longer bear the words “Hutu” or “Tutsi”.

BEATE ARNESTAD has become a skilled international film director with a conscience full of fundamental key issues. Many know her as the creator of the film My Daughter the Terrorist (2007), in which she follows two young female soldiers with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. This testament of a film helps us understand the oppression and desperation the Sri Lankan government has brought upon the Tamils – to the extent where many see enlisting in the rebel group as their only alternative. We see them as freedom fighters – those whom politicians unfortunately often dismiss as “terrorists”, and therefore “expendable”. We all know what happened to the Tamil ethnic group last year when government forces attacked the northern part of Sri Lanka, ruthlessly wiping out rebels and civilians alike – in all likelihood, the two women from the film among them.

Arnestad’s previous film pleaded the Tamil’s case the world over. A further, disturbing consequence was that the mother from My Daughter the Terrorist was murdered after the Sri Lankan authorities saw the film. She had no knowledge of her daughter’s actions. Arnestad later told me that this was probably a “warning” to directors like her against making this type of film.

Arnestad’s next film Voices (2011) will be about the rights of journalists, the losses and the risks they expose themselves to in countries in crisis. Those critical of their country’s regime “disappear”, but many also make it into exile. Arnestad meets three such journalists, each of whom, in their own way, is continuing to gather evidence of crimes committed by the authorities.

Arnestad has as a director developed an unassuming voice but in the film we never hear her interview questions – unheard, but fundamentally ethical questions nonetheless. Not only does she get hold of the authorities and high-ranking figures responsible for oppressing their citizens, but she is also able to show – as in Telling Truths in Arusha – that responses to violent international events are never clear-cut.

A valuable skill for a filmmaker to possess.


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