BERLIN -- Sometimes in April
takes on the Rwandan genocide of 1994 with a story that incorporates both the big picture and a drama about a specific family. Writer-director Raoul Peck
, who told the story of the rise to power and assassination of a Congolese leader in Lumumba
, has the disadvantage of coming late to the subject. Along with several books about the horrifying events that left upward of 1 million people dead, several documentaries and the Oscar-nominated film Hotel Rwanda
already have brought Rwanda to the screen. Undoubtedly, there are many, many stories arising from these atrocities yet to be told. But Peck's generic approach, in which one fictional tale tries to encompass the entire tragedy, falls considerably short of the mark.
In the United States, the film will air on HBO, where many people who successfully have avoided any book or movie will get exposed to the story perhaps for the first time, so this might do much good. In territories where April
will get released theatrically, the film might have less impact.
The story is split between two Aprils, in 2004 and 1994, and tells the experiences of Augustin Muganza (Idris Elba
). Peck contrives the makeup of his family in such a way that he can include as many horror stories as possible. Thus, Augustin is a Hutu army officer, but his wife (Carole Karemera
) is Tutsi. His brother Honore (Oris Erhuero
) works at a radio station known as "hate radio" that broadcasts a call to arms for Hutus to slaughter Tutsis during the three-month carnage. And Augustin's girlfriend in 2004, Martine (Pamela Nomvete
), teaches at a Catholic girls school in 1994, which one of his daughters attends.
In April 2004, during the national Day of Remembrance, Augustin receives a letter from Honore, asking Augustin to visit him in prison in Tanzania, where he is about to plead guilty at the International Criminal Tribunal. Martine urges him to go. Augustin reluctantly does so, and the movie moves back and forth between the two Aprils to fill us in on what happened to the family -- and the nation.
A third sequence takes place behind closed doors in Washington, where U.S. officials debate and temporize but do nothing to stop the massacre. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Prudence Bushnell (Debra Winger
) argues for action but gets nowhere. The impression left by these scenes -- that blame for nonintervention lies solely with the U.S. government and not other U.N. member states, including European powers with genuine stakes in the region -- is simplistic and misleading.
The film captures the tensions and fears as chaos rages in the streets and includes more than enough sequences of mass murder to get across the point that madness gripped the entire nation. However, none of its characters is sufficiently developed so that an audience really can identify with him, which is what makes Hotel Rwanda
so much more powerful. Dialogue often deteriorates into speeches, and characters habitually make geopolitical points.
This Berlinale has its share of movies about ethnic carnage, such as Amu
, about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India, and Massacre
, about the Christian militia's murder of Palestinian civilians in refugee camps in 1982. Such films need to be made and seen. But they usually hit home strongest when filmmakers are willing to put as much effort into drama and character as into political posturing.
SOMETIMES IN APRIL
Credits: Director-screenwriter: Raoul Peck; Producer: Daniel Delume; Executive producers: Raoul Peck
, Joel Stillerman; Director of photography: Eric Guichard; Production designer: Benoit Barouh; Music: Bruno Coulais; Costume designer: Paule Mangenot; Editor: Jacques Comets
. Cast: Augustin: Idris Elba; Prudence Bushnell: Debra Winger; Jeanne: Carole Karemera; Martine: Pamela Nomvete; Honore: Oris Erhuero; Xavier: Fraser James; Lionel: Noah Emmerich.
No MPAA rating, running time 140 minutes.