Eliane Umuhire in Bazigaga
If you met her in the street, you would not guess that she’s a survivor of a bloody genocide which claimed the lives of as many as 800,000 people, including half of her own family. Yet genocide happens to ordinary people in ordinary places, Jo is keen to say. It can happen anywhere, and diligent efforts are needed to guard against the hate which precedes it.
Her new short film, Bazigaga, which is now part of the 2023 Oscar race, takes viewers back to Rwanda in 1994, when the genocide there occurred. It tells the story of a traditional healer – the title character – who is persuaded to shelter a Tutsi pastor and his daughter in her home when the Hutu militia comes looking for them.
The irony of the situation is that Bazigaga has suffered social ostracisation as a result of the pastor denouncing her and calling her a witch. She has no supernatural powers’, but only the soldiers’ belief that she does is keeping the soldiers at bay, and keeping her, the pastor and the child alive.
It’s a story with real life inspiration. Zura Karuhimbi was the real life heroine who saved over a hundred people in this way. I asked Jo if she had always wanted to make a film on this subject, or if it was discovering Zura’s story which made all the difference.
“It was definitely this particular story,” she says. “If anything, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid this kind of story. But when I found this story, I mean, it’s so compelling. It’s such a different approach as well, to the topic of the genocide in Rwanda, and when I found this, I knew that I had had to tell it.
“I wanted to portray this woman as fully human, as fully rounded a character as possible, which is tricky to do, because most of the action really takes place in one place. You only really see her in the confines of her home. So it was a good challenge for me to try and put layers to her character in that scene, and I think giving context to that is really important. Also, it was important because life before genocide informed a lot of the decisions that people made during the genocide. So that was really important, to just bring that life before, and that you see that in this moment in the genocide. She’s powerful and vulnerable in equal measure, in a way that was different to her life prior to it.”
We talk about the way that the conflict between the Christian pastor and the traditional healer reflects that between Hutu and Tutsi people.
“it was really important to to just bring that context, because I think at the core of it, obviously, the backstory is doing so. And I wanted to explore, like you said, the tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi people through the metaphor of the Christian and the witch doctor, because in many ways, when you really strip down to it, they are very, very similar. And that’s something that I wanted to tease out.
“The position of the traditional healer is still kind of a precarious in society in that people do shun them, they are looked down upon, but they’re revered and feared and command a sort of authority in society in ways that many pastors and priests still don’t. That’s something that I find very, very interesting, and it’s true to Zura Karuhimbi’s life.
Before the genocide, she would have been shunned, but then in the genocide she was feared, so she went from being ostracised to actually having a position of power, and nothing she did changed, it’s just how people perceive her. I found that really fascinating.
“I discovered her story at the Kigali Memorial. I’d gone there to research my own personal history. In terms of research, I came to Rwanda and spoke to quite a few people who knew her. I was going to meet her, but then I missed her. Our appointment schedules just didn’t line up, and sadly she died a few weeks after. So I was heartbroken that I didn’t really get to meet her. But I watched plenty of interviews with her in, and the Kigali Memorial was kind enough to give me the interviews they had of her so I could actually see her in person and listen to her tell me her own story.”
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