Birds Are Singing in Kigali, awarded a Silver Lion Prize at Gdynia Film Festival, is a film born from noble intentions and grand ambitions. Unfortunately, it is also devoid of life and excessively formalistic.
How to recount the story of the Rwandan genocide without being too sensational or melodramatic? How to avoid emotional blackmail in a film in order to pose a question about the nature of evil and the causes of mutual hate? How to make a film about Africa without getting involved in post-colonial discourse?
After seeing Birds Are Singing in Kigali one can be sure, that Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze have not only asked themselves these questions, but also that they have found the answer to them. Their film manifests the directors’ grand ambitions – it is deliberately devoid of emotions and escapes stereotypes and film clichés.
The Krauzes set themselves on an exceptionally high target – they wanted to tell a story both about a bloody massacre and its consequences, but also about the strained psyches of the two heroines, the inability to open up to other human beings, and trauma which turns a victim into a prisoner of their own emotions. But the story of Claudine (Elaine Umuhire), a Rwandan woman rescued from the Hutu massacre, and Anna (Jowita Budnik), a Polish ornithologist helping her to settle in 1990s Poland, leaves the viewer indifferent to the on-screen drama despite of the emotional resonance dwelling in it.
The directors have mindfully forgone easy emotions and the final version of their film differs greatly from the vision disclosed to the media a few years ago. This feature, inspired by Wojciech Albiński’s short story, was initially supposed to be about a white ornithologist rescuing an African girl. Nick Nolte was to play the main role and the film was supposed to be a romantic story about love and redemption. Fortunately, the Krauzes rejected this idea and made a film on their own terms.
Their film is a far cry from the encouraging Hollywood love story. It is more so an art-house rumination on the nature of evil and its consequences, intentionally devoid of extreme emotions and strong images. The Krauzes do not show the viewers with scenes portraying the carnage, as was done in Hollywood films about Rwanda. A boy, running through a dark road in fear, is the only symbolic image of violence present in the story. Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze avoid being lofty, but they also do not introduce any formalistic distance into the film. We won’t find any critical analysis here, so typical of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentaries about genocide (The Look of Silence, The Act of Killing). Instead, the Polish directors are more concerned about what happens after the genocide. They tell the story of an incurable trauma which affects individuals, but also of the community falling into oblivion and avoiding confrontation with a painful past.
Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze tell a story about the mechanisms which allow society to exorcise collective memory. In this context the title of the film turns out to be ambiguous. The bird’s song serves as a symbol of community – their singing, so natural that it is almost inaudible, trails away after the carnage orchestrated by the Tutsis’ neighbours. Following the traumatic events, even the birds cease to communicate, as if they wanted to leave the tragedy which happened on the Rwandan soil unsaid. The silent treatment allows the foregone massacre to not be remembered. This silence does not clean consciences, but makes day-to-day functioning easier, and turns those who are silent into accomplices who take the weight off the executioners’ shoulders.
Although the film is about an African drama, at its core it is a universal story. The narrative about the concealment of history echoes the recent discussions about Volhynia, the debates about the Poles’ participation in the Holocaust (brought to light by Jan Gross’s books), and also the films of Wojciech Smarzowski or Władysław Pasikowski. Krauzes turn their film into a mirror, in which the witnesses and their children can see their reflection. When we watch Claudine trying to find the grave of her parents, we recall similar shots from Birthplace, Ida or Aftermath, and the scene of the return to the family home, now inhabited by different people, brings to mind Rose or The View is Beautiful from the Distance.
This universalism is a great asset in Krauzes’ film, but it does not cover its fundamental flaws. The most important of them is the deliberate frigidness. Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze encase their story in a studied film form. This would not be a weak point if only the images of dead animals, looming vultures, and animal intestines, which function here as a visual chorus, did not seem forcefully inserted into the narrative. In a subtle story full of understatements, their literality strikes the viewer, as do the inconsequences in the scenario – for example, the main character’s daughter is being mentioned in only one scene, and is never being touched on again after that.
Its most inconspicuous scenes are the Birds’... greatest strength. Especially the everyday images from Joanna’s life, her meetings with her friend and occasional lover Witek (Witold Wieliński) and also the scenes of confrontation between Joanna and Claudine – the latter is self-reliant and entirely dependent on her Polish friend at the same time. The talents of Jowita Budnik and Eliane Umuhire (awarded at Gdynia and Karlovy Vary) make this intense film drama authentic. It is a shame that the creators have put a damper on these excellent actresses and characters brimming with unobvious emotions, which turned a tragic story about two close women into a formalistic and overintellectualised piece.
Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by Patryk Grabowski, October 2017.