Surviving Images

An interview with Christophe Gargot about the difficult search for justice in Rwanda and the particular challenge of his documentary D’Arusha à Arusha.

Since 1993, Christophe Gargot has been a consultant in development, environmental and Human Rights issues, mainly working for humanitarian NGO’s. Typically, the task is to analyze an organization’s programme, to evaluate its relevance and to determine whether the mandate and its mission are clear. Gargot has investigated systems of “transitional justice”, notably the Gacaca, community trials installed in Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocidal violence against the Tutsi population sweeping the country in 1994. On another occasion, Gargot, commissioned by the Soros Foundation, co-authored an analysis of the different audio-visual systems applied in every international court tribunal since the ICTY established for war crimes committed in Yugoslavia. The study considered the tribunals in Cambodia, in Sierra Leone, and the ICTR, the International Court Tribunal for Rwanda, set up in Arusha/Tanzania. The attempt was to provide an overview of the filming policies implemented in war crime judicial undertakings in the last fifteen years, and to open a serious debate on why and how to film war crimes trials. Having already started to work as a documentary filmmaker in the various fields he was investigating, Gargot’s first feature length film came to be a challenging critique of the performance of international justice at the ICTR in Arusha. D’Arusha à Arusha premiered at the 19th International Documentary Film Festival in Marseille and was shown in the Forum section of the 59th Berlin International Film Festival in February, which is when the following interview took place.

How did the idea to make a film about the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda grow from your counselling work?

It wouldn’t be accurate to say the film grew from my counselling job. At the very beginning there was a friendship. In 1999, I visited a journalist friend based in Arusha and it was then when I assisted an international trial for the first time. This first encounter with the ICTR came to be a frustration. I had expected to see the international community represented by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, but virtually none of these were present. There were only a few journalists, and that was it! And there was no encounter with the public, either. So I felt that considering the high expectations we had in this court there was something wrong from the beginning. When later I asked myself, what really happened in this court, I came to consider that the court was trying to protect itself from the outside, probably because the enormous ambition was so heavy to assume. On the other hand, I think, they were too self-confident in their status as the International Justice. This self-confidence in status, supported by substantial financial means, reinforces your legitimacy and makes you think that you are not really accountable for what you are actually doing.

You soon found out that the court sessions are being filmed and documented and that this material is freely accessible. How did you approach this material when starting to work on your film?

In 2000, the friend that I had visited the year before came back from Arusha and brought me some of these video tapes assuming I might be interested in this kind of material. I was, of course. When I started to watch the tapes on my VCR, I asked myself: ‘What are they doing this for? What does this material say?’ Of course, the raw material doesn’t say anything. I started to analyze the way the ICTR was showing itself and why it was doing it this way. What is the capacity of these images to testify to a historical truth? What does the ICTR want us to see and what, in the same instance, is it trying to hide by producing these images? This is how my work started.

It happened to be the same period when in France for the first time television was granted access to some of the audio-visual records of the Klaus Barbie trial that had taken place in 1987 in Lyon. Since 1985 a law allowed to film certain types of trials, those which were of special historic interest. The Barbie trial was the first to be filmed, followed by the Touvier and Papon trials. What’s interesting is that this law also stipulates an embargo period during which this material is to be kept inaccessible. Historians shall be given access to this material after 30 years – in the Barbie case this would have been 2017 – and the public only after 50 years. In a way, this reveals how in France we considered this audiovisual material very precious and also potentially dangerous. Fortunately, a TV channel, “Histoire”, challenged this law and succeeded to get legal access before the prescribed 50 years. More than 70 hours of the 185 hours filmed have then been shown on TV in 2000. And this happened when I had just started to work on the ICTR material. So the issues were there: Why do we film these trials, what does it mean, what do we do with the filmed material?

In the beginning of your film you show four different scenes, four locations representing different possibilities to deal with the events of 1994. First there is the memorial site in Murambi, Rwanda, a quite austere, yet open public site; then we see the International Court in Arusha, an interior, a closed, secluded site. Then we see the house of Jean de Dieu, one of your main protagonists, who has been tried by a jury and is awaiting his judgement at home; and then we see the state prison in Kigali. The film goes on to juxtapose what happens in these locations, but it does not seem to do so primarily for comparison. In the end, we still find ourselves somewhere between those places, with no clear answer as to where we should turn to find an appropriate scene for justice or reconciliation.

That’s right, because there is none, or rather, the appropriate place is somewhere between those places, although all those scenes are concerned by the same story. I think that with the ideal of justice comes the idea that we have something in common. This common thing is what brings legitimacy to international justice of the kind practiced in Arusha. Today, however, this legitimacy is not reconsidered, but rather postulated. The assumption is that we have something in common in the world, because we are all part of the universe. And one thing we presumably have in common is this ideal of justice. Let’s say, why not? But I think you have to be very optimistic to believe in this kind of universal justice. For me the link between the different scenes I show in the beginning of the film does not exist by itself. It is something that we need to build, if we want them to be linked. Making a relation between all those places is an intellectual production, not something that is evident. And my film puts the spectator exactly in this position. It doesn’t give him the solution, it doesn’t show him the way it works; it just tries to present the different faces of the topic in order to make the spectator think for himself. Which aspects can I subscribe to and which not? What does it mean to endorse a universal idea? Do we have something in common? And can we communicate about all this through a film?

I think there is a connection between this engagement of the spectator and some of the feedback you had from audiences during the festival. While generally appreciating the challenge, people still felt somewhat uncomfortably that the film “doesn’t show it all”. It occurs to me that audiences enter a film with a high level of self-confidence concerning their status of information. They seem to feel informed, or even overfed, and are therefore often approaching a film with a special interest: ‘Let’s see if this one can tell us anything new’. What they do expect to see in any case is what they believe they already know. Working on your film, were you consciously dealing with the anticipations of an audience that already feels informed?

Not so much. To be honest, I am much more interested in the feeling of lack that I leave than in giving answers. In fact, I was afraid to come up with an answer, as so many films do. By pointing out a lack instead, I expect to force the questions. Frequently, and especially people involved with international justice or with what happened in Rwanda, told me: ‘Who will be able to understand such a film?’ They were saying that we shouldn’t expect too much from the public. Of course we are dealing with a difficult and bitter material, but I am sure that people are fed up watching the same kind of film based on answers and morals. They are fed up with being considered stupid. When I was thirteen years old, our history teacher showed us Nuit & Brouillard (Night and Fog) by Alain Resnais and it made a huge impression on me, even if I didn’t catch every aspect of the film. But what is important is that our teacher considered us as capable of living the experience of the film. One of the most interesting encounters I had with my film was showing it to young university students in France. They were 8 to 10 years old at the time of the events and the film gripped them. Some films feel obliged to write “never again” at the end, to make sure we get their message. But with definite gestures like this they bring us very far from what the topic is actually about. It takes time to think about what happened and what to do with all that. The answers are not easy and they cannot be the same for all of us. First, bring the elements, secondly give people room to think and to blaze their own trail through the terrain. Don’t kill the possibility of an experience.

This claim is actually very aptly expressed in your film by Jean de Dieu. You confront him with the video tapes from the International Court and we see him watch them on a TV screen in his house. At a certain point he says: “This is going too fast. Is there a way to slow down the images?”

This is a moment of truth in the process of the film. For Jean de Dieu it is firstly a unique occasion to see video images, especially those images. Of course things are going much too fast. It takes a lot of time to understand what we see, what it is about and to bring up the right issues. Jean de Dieu is saying exactly that: “Can we slow down? I don’t want to go fast, especially when it brings back things that work as a mirror.” Many questions haven’t been answered yet, but before we can answer them, we have to let them emerge. Again making this documentary is not for giving answers, but rather to participate in the construction of questions. Here is the difference between being under a “duty of memory”, which I don’t understand, and “memory work”, in which I am interested in and which is what history is about.

The narrative challenge of your film can in some ways be related to Eyal Sivan’s in Un spécialiste, the film about the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem which consists entirely of the footage filmed in court. I remember a lecture Sivan gave last year in London, talking about the truth value of documentary images and the specific use of such images in juridical contexts. Among other interesting things he said that there is no justice without a scene; that a pre-condition for justice to appear is the construction of a scene. And he concluded from that the immense responsibility of the filmmaker in creating a scene in which perpetrator and victim will appear as such. In your film you create very different scenes, and you also confront these scenes with each other. Do you see a relevance of Sivan’s thoughts about the scene for your own work?

Yes and we can even go further. What is a trial? It is a very primitive scene that then becomes very complex: a sacrifice. A trial is always a ritual for regulating violence. In Europe a court is arranged in the shape of a cross, which reminds us that it is a highly regulated sacrifice area. In a sacrifice you have the judges, the prosecutor, the defendant, and the public. The public is a part of the cross as part of the sacrifice. After all, the verdict is given “in the name of the people”. What is new and strange about the ICTR on this level is that the public is disconnected from the sacrifice area by a thick, heavy, bullet-proof window, which puts you far away from the scene, especially concerning the possibility of a sensorial experience. You don’t hear what happens inside. You can listen with a headset, but what you hear on the headset is coming from the translator booth. The public is not considered as a part of the body of the scene anymore and this is a dramatic rupture from what the sacrifice area traditionally is. It curtails the public dimension of the trial. As a substitute these film images then become the body to be shared, the main public dimension of this justice. But working with these images, you realize how poor they are, how hard they are to use, because they lack the natural point of view of a public. Who is watching who? So the first thing to do, in order to make the experience of this justice possible through these images, is to rebuild the physicality of the space and to enable the viewer to project himself into the scene, to make himself part of it.

You did that by deconstructing the material that you had, but you also added other material, interviews and observations you made in Rwanda. Is this additional material part of the scene you reconstruct, or would you rather say that it constitutes a new space?

We should say it constitutes the new space for the scene. I use the images of the trial to recreate a public scene, by bringing these images in front of Jean de Dieu and others. This is one part. The second part is the complete deconstruction of the images of the trial through editing. In my editing I was trying to create a dramatic relation, proper to trials in cinema. This way, by locating the spectator in the middle of the court, he may have a sensorial feeling of the experience of a trial. The ICTR footage never shows the entire space in an overview. You don’t know where the public is located, how big the room is. When Leo Hurwitz filmed the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, he put cameras all around the court by building a wooden wall with small windows that allowed him to place the camera on eye level, the public’s point of view. This is the footage Eyal was working with for Un spécialiste. Here, in the ICTR, the cameras are at the ceiling, as if from a new God’s point of view. Frankly, the raw material is not well done, because the ICTR doesn’t know why it is producing these images. No reflection on what it means to film and to fabricate historically significant material has taken place. It is even worse in the material filmed in Sarajevo and in Cambodia. This is a very serious problem for the future, because most of the footage will be very hard to use.

Another ingredient in your reconstruction of the physicality of a scene is sound recordings from “Radio Libre des Mille Collines”. Archive material of broadcasts from that time by radio host Georges Ruggiu, who was convicted by the ICTR for his involvement in inciting the genocide, and whose trial is one of those featured in the footage you use. There is a scene in your film in which we hear a particularly fanatic speech by Ruggiu from April 1994. What we see simultaneously is men playing football on a communal football field. At some point Ruggiu quotes Macchiavelli, saying “it is better to be feared than loved”. There is an immediate temptation for the spectator to read the images as reconciliation to this quote: This is Hutu and Tutsi men peacefully playing football now, 15 years after the genocide. I have my doubts, however, that this is what you were trying to tell us.

No, indeed this was not my main point. Of course the duality Hutu/Tutsi is a reality, but it is not so much an ethnic one. It is socially constructed, in order to make ethnicity politically powerful. That was dominant in what happened in 1990 and that’s what is still dominating today. From 1990 to 1994 some people in Rwanda were trying to break these terrific rules. They were called the “Hutus moderés” and the “Tutsi democrats”. A very short period in Rwanda in which there occured a chance to break these ethnic rules. It was symbolised by the Arusha agreement in 1993, which turned out to be a lure. The image of the football game is meant to recall that what we are facing in the political arena is a game ruled by political ambition; and that the soundtrack we are listening to sounds familiar. You see, Rwandans have shared the same space for centuries, the same language, the same culture, the same social codes. Who has a specific need for ethnicity? As in other countries, ethnicity is a useful concept for those who want to gain and maintain their political power. But another, related purpose of these images of the men playing football is to create physicality. In order to make the intellectual experience possible, I think it has to be associated with a sensorial one that goes through bodies that are not only dead ones. This is a uniqueness that we do share.

A hesitation to jump to an “ethnic” interpretation of reconciliation can also be seen in the way you present Jean de Dieu and his wife, Marie Goretti. He is a Hutu, a repentant perpetrator; she is a Tutsi who he was barely able to safe from his marauding comrades. As a “mixed couple”, for whom reconciliation has been a very personal process, they could stand as an example for an optimistic outlook on the future. You have interviewed them in the same room, yet we never see them together in the same frame. Was this a deliberate decision?

Yes, I never imagined interviewing them together, because I was interested to build a relation with somebody, each of them, instead of something: the mixed couple. I have the feeling that we get a deeper understanding of their couple history by facing them individually than together. Besides I think I wouldn’t have had a chance to access Marie Goretti, if I had expected her to talk in the presence of her husband. The conditions in which someone will eventually feel comfortable to talk can be extremely fragile; they definitely are in Rwanda.

Ever since the prominent example of the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa, it has become a popular token that in Africa violent conflicts and collective traumata are dealt with in different ways. The idea is that the collective process shall not be a penal process; that the focus is not on revenge, but rather on the fact that after the monstrosity we have to find a way to go on living together. We cannot segregate perpetrators forever; we will have to share the same space. Some commentators are referring this to a certain philosophy that says: Whatever happens to one of us, has happened to all of us, and therefore my possibility to live on is connected to the other’s possibility. The Gacaca trials in Rwanda, it seems, were initiated in this spirit, too. But you only give them a marginal appearance in your film.

I am more than sceptical about the Gacaca. Their reconciliation aspect has been promoted ideologically to make them more acceptable for the population and also for the international organizations making financial contributions to Rwanda. But when you study Gacaca closely, you will see that they have nothing to do with a reconciliation process. They are a very classical and rude form of jurisdiction created to judge only one aspect: crimes against the Tutsi. In a Gacaca trial, you don’t have any lawyer, judges can often be illiterate. You cannot bring forward a crime committed against a Hutu by an RPF soldier, for example, especially not in the Northeast of the country, where we do know a large number of crimes were committed against Hutu. In many aspects the Gacaca appears to be a vengeance system. The trials serve as a tool for many people to gain power over a community by blackmailing part of the community with threats of accusation.

Jean de Dieu is facing a trial in a Gacaca?

Yes, but meanwhile he has been acquitted.

What happens practically when somebody is sentenced in a Gacaca?

When the sentence is short, it is transformed into a certain amount of communal labour. But when the sentence is long, which is very frequent, 10, 20, 25, sometimes 30 years, you spend most of it in jail. Only a week ago, a lady I know has been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. And you know for what? For not taking care of her neighbour’s baby during the genocide. But this lady is also known for protecting many Tutsi from being killed during the genocide. Now merely upon the accusation of a neighbour who apparently doesn’t like her … that’s awful. For me this is like backfiring, driven by resentment. In my opinion Gacaca is a very dangerous system that takes us far away from reconciliation.

In his final address, parts of which are included in your film, the defense lawyer of ex-General Théoneste Bagosora, Raphaël Constant, describes the ICTR as a court of the vanquished rather than the victors. In an audience discussion you have made the point that in order to speak justice one first needs to win. The problem, you said, is not necessarily whether it is a victors’ court…

…but what it does with the power that is given to it.

You are criticizing the ICTR for being “feeble”.

I think Raphaël Constant is right in this difficult position. He assumes that his client is not a “good cat”. But that is not the point for Raphaël Constant. He asks: ‘How do we make sure that with this trial we have understood something? Do we?’ And he says: ‘No. We are almost in the same position as in the beginning. Of course you judges will have an answer, of course my client will be found guilty. But what we have done here is poor in the light of what we were supposed to do.’ True, the tribunal is in a very ambitious and demanding situation regarding the mystery of the history that it is expected to write. If they don’t take this risk, however, we are left with an ideological system, in which we have to believe or not.

Do you think the failure has again to do with accepting the ethnic reading of the situation?

Of course you cannot compare the crimes committed against Tutsis with the crimes committed against Hutu by the RPF. The scale is not the same. But an international court has to look at both sides, otherwise it is not equal. The historic response which the international community has proposed with the mandate of the ICTR has not been taken to its full conclusion. The weakness of this tribunal is that it hasn’t been able to express its mandate. One of its major limits was the political pressure from Rwanda, which it tried to deny. From the very beginning, the Rwandan government has made it clear that it is merely ‘tolerating’ this court. Rwanda was the only country opposed to the creation of the ICTR. The message was simple: ‘If you want to make your enquiries, you must accept to deal with those who get the power in Rwanda, which means mainly the RPF.’ The first warning has been the kidnapping of Froduald Karamira in India in 1996 by the Rwandans, while the ICTR wanted him in Arusha. But he was put to trial, convicted, and publicly executed in Kigali – first victory.

You see, in Nuremberg in 1945, Robert H. Jackson was aware of his responsibility. He knew that the only interesting proofs were the facts. That is why there was so little testimony in Nuremberg. A testimony is so weak. If you bring a Rwandan to Arusha, what do you think he is going to tell you? Something that might put him in danger when he goes back? Of course not. Yet 80% of the proof in Arusha is testimonies. And do you think that Raphaël Constant could bring all the witnesses that he wanted to Arusha, to testify for Bagosora? Of course not. Do you think that Raphaël Constant could get all the proofs that he wanted? The papers from the official archives of the Rwandan authorities? Of course he could not. You come to a trial to assume the defence, but you don’t have the proper means to do it. The same, however, goes for the prosecution: its means were the means that the Rwandan authorities were yielding. So it is a feeble court.

Hannah Arendt summed up her eye-witness experience of the Eichmann trial in the famous phrase that she had seen “the banality of evil”. There is an odd reminiscence of this in your film when we hear Georges Ruggiu’s defence lawyer describing his client as a “banal person” and offering this as an extenuating detail. I think that one reason why in the court scene the evil is transformed into something banal is that the modern legal process has to focus on proving individual guilt, which ultimately means to focus on a very narrow perspective. So you start with the facts of genocide, but what you have in the end is somebody coordinating timetables, like Eichmann did. How can you relate this banality to the monstrosity of the crime he was part of? What I see you do in your film is collecting several subjective perspectives, in an attempt to illustrate the conflict between subjective guilt and objective judgement. Do you think that film, not only your film specifically, but film in general, can be a means to create the complexity of collective experience, and to constitute a collective memory?

An interesting and complex question, but I do not really have an answer. Collective experience, probably yes, but collective memory… I would say, let’s participate.

Were you trying to do this?

Yes, in a way. I think that the collective part is taken by making films, by authors. A trial can do just a little part of it. First, it has to go from the collective experience to an individual culpability. Then it has the ambition to hide that point, but it cannot. We expect so many things from this kind of trial: to right history, to right the social system, to right the memory, and to right the question of guilt. And of course this is asking too much from the trial. This job has to be done by people like us, by making films or books. We can link things together because we enjoy a certain distance which allows us to do it. You can tell from the questions of a lawyer or a prosecutor how they are obliged to get a quick answer; they cannot take time and sometimes they can not go deeper into a matter because it would jeopardize the interest of their client. The prosecutor, Charles Adeogun-Philips, who we see in the film, asking for an immediate answer about the ethnic segregation of Hutu and Tutsi: ‘Was there or was there not?’ He seems to think that he can explain the conspiracy for massacres by one answer: yes or no. Of course he can not. Even today, with Bagosora convicted, not a single proof has been produced to prove the conspiracy for genocide. Seven years after the beginning of the trial, which was supposed to be the major trial, the judges haven’t been able to proof the complicity. This illustrates how difficult it is and that the trial has reached its limit: an individual in front of his own life.

Is this a structural impossibility, a failure of the juridical scene as such, or is it a failure of this particular trial?

I think it is a structural dilemma, but I am myself still in the process of analysing it. As with Nuremberg, it is the historian’s part to dig into the archives, to look at the archive material differently and to make links that haven’t been made. That’s how you can try to produce a historical process. And that process is going to be enlightening.


The interview was conducted in English on February 15, 2009, in the Savoy Hotel in Berlin. The text is a transcript from the audio recording, edited by both participants.