by Alrick Brown
I am neither a Muslim nor a Christian; in fact I do not practice any organized faith. However, I have spent much time in Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist communities, in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples all over the world, from the Ukraine to New York, from Africa to Singapore. Through these experiences I have developed a healthy respect for religion and for spiritual practices and beliefs, a respect that brought me to the subject matter of my first feature film, Kinyarwanda – a film about faith, life, love and hope in midst of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.
Kinyarwanda had its world premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. We received a standing ovation that night. Local and national papers advertised that the 2011 festival was filled with films about faith. One of the more powerful and well-received scenes in Kinyarwanda is a moment when Muslims and Christians seeking refuge from the violence pray their respective prayers under the same roof.
Kinyarwanda was made in collaboration with a Muslim Rwandan Genocide survivor, Ishmael Ntihabose. Ishmael was also the Executive Producer and the brains and heart behind the story. It was he who had the courage and vision to seek me out, an African-American, non-Muslim, to tell the untold story of how the Mufti of Rwanda risked his own life by issuing an edict forbidding Muslims from participating in the genocide. This effectively made the mosque in Kigali and the madrassa of Nyanza two of the safest places in the country during that horrific time. Muslims, Christians, Tutsis and moderate Hutus all sought shelter in those spaces, and priests and Imams worked together to save, preserve and inspire life.
Meanwhile, in many of the Catholic churches, masses of people were being slaughtered. This is not to demonize the Catholic Church—in fact, after such tragic acts the church has worked diligently to restore its name and has spoken openly about the unforgivable acts that took place within its walls.
This is also not to make heroes out of Muslims, because though mosques and Muslim villages were safer, some Muslims did participate in the killing while some Christians refused to participate.
Kinyarwanda is not about heroes and villains, good or bad, but about real people who made decisions for selfish or selfless reasons. This fact underscores one of the most important lines in the film and my stance on the matter. It is why I am at peace with all that I learned about these events, in spite of the complicated relationship I have personally had with religion. In the film, while a discussion is going on about colonialism and the root causes of the genocide, a mention of Christianity versus Islam comes up. The Mufti intercedes and squelches negative remarks by an Imam about Christians, saying, “Don’t confuse the word of God with the actions of men.”
I have found both beauty and tragedy within the religions that I have experienced or studied. Religion was used during slavery in the Americas and abroad to justify unspeakable acts and to subjugate and mentally colonize millions of human beings. Religion was used to justify the killing during the Crusades, the taking of land and the de-humanization of Native Americans and Aborigines, to explain segregation, to point out the immorality of same-sex unions and abortion, and as a justification for war. But then there is the beauty. The beauty we see in the people who have found faith, who have found something beautiful to believe in, those who have a faith that helps them transcend their daily struggles and believe in something bigger than themselves; a faith that teaches us to heal, to forgive, to love, to accept, and to understand—even if we do not necessarily agree; a faith that has challenged the worst amongst us to change and to find light in the world and within ourselves.
Religion and God are not the cause of our problems. We live in an interfaith world because, in the end, as portrayed in the film, we actually do live in and share one space, one world. Thus we all pray and worship under the same roof. And under that shared roof is flawed humanity.
Alrick Brown’s collective work has screened in over 60 film festivals worldwide; earning numerous awards and honors. Among them is the prestigious 2011 Sundance World Cinema Audience Award for his first feature Kinyarwanda. A highly sought consultant and educator on the art of cinematic storytelling, Alrick’s work has been described as cultural archeology because of his vision to unearth and tell stories that otherwise would not be told; stories that often focus on social issues affecting the world at large. He received his MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where he’s taught both undergraduate and graduate film students.