Joël Karekezi, a young Rwandan director, scriptwriter and producer, invites his viewer to reflect on the absurdity of war but also, and above all, on forgiveness and hope. The Mercy of the Jungle (“La Miséricorde de la jungle”), his second feature film, has just won the Gold Stallion, the highest award at FESPACO, Ouagadougou’s Pan-African Film and Television Festival.
You started out in cinema in a rather unusual way. How and why did you become interested in this medium?
As a child, I already had this love of cinema. I remember when I was little, even before the genocide, there was a small room where we went with the other children to watch films which were screened there. This admiration for the so-called “7th Art” grew and grew: I watched a lot of films, and then I also wanted to be able to tell stories, particularly stories that try to think about people. I discovered the art of directing through the Internet while I was studying biology and chemistry. I saw that there were online courses for it, through the CinéCours School in Canada, and I started out remotely. Then in 2009 I participated in a writing training programme through a charity, Maisha Film Lab, in Uganda. That’s where I was able to make my first short film, The Pardon (“Le pardon").
A first work which you also adapted into a feature film under the title Imbabazi: The Pardon, telling the story of the war you experienced through the tale of two former best friends. Was it important for you to testify, to offer this Rwandan perspective on the conflict?
Talking about the conflict in Rwanda was necessary for me. I lost my father during the genocide as a child, and a few years later, when the perpetrators of the genocide began to come out of prison, we all had questions. I asked myself: “If I ever meet the person who killed my father: would I be able to forgive him?” So I started writing a script to try to understand the need for forgiveness and how it can happen, how this step can be taken. With the short film, I could bring this idea to life, but I needed to take this reflection even further. My feature film, released in 2013, tells the story of two friends who grew up together, one of whom lost his family in front of his eyes, the other of whom is a perpetrator of genocide who is released from prison and returns to his village. Can he be forgiven?
Your second film, The Mercy of the Jungle, explores the question of war this time from the perspective of two soldiers, both serving during the Second Congo War. What message did you want to convey?
This story was inspired by my cousin, also a soldier, who found himself lost in the jungle. I wanted to tackle this subject of confrontation with the enormity of the jungle, in all its psychological dimensions. The film therefore tells the story of two soldiers who confront their own demons and are forced to make choices for the future. The idea was also to question war in general, its absurdity, in a style which is at once more direct and more poetic.
You filmed in the middle of the jungle – a jungle that becomes a character in its own right. How did the filming go?
We filmed for five weeks in the “impenetrable” jungle on the borders of Uganda, the Congo and Rwanda. We had to carry all the equipment with us, and I remember above all having walked, walked, walked for hours! Over 80% of the team was local: Ugandans, Rwandans, Malians... We all have something to say about war, we all wanted to tell this story. It was very important to invest ourselves in doing this: the jungle had to be a character, had to be alive. Its role in the film is essential: it travels alongside the main duo, forcing the characters to confront each other and pushing them to question themselves.
You have just received the very prestigious Gold Stallion at the FESPACO and actor Marc Zinga won the award for Best Actor for his role as the sergeant in the film. What do these two prizes mean to you?
This is something wonderful for me, but also for my entire generation which is currently making films in Rwanda. It is a prize that demonstrates that we know how to do cinema, that we can do it, and proves to our country that cinema is necessary. This isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning!
The film was shown in Rwanda. How was it received?
The theatre was full, there was a lot of emotion. The stories in my films are universal, this one is no exception: it is intended for all audiences, all ages, Rwandan or not, because it concerns everyone. Unfortunately, there are wars everywhere. I would like people in countries which are peaceful today to be able to see it. The absurdity of war, what people experience – even after – should be of interest to everyone. It would be wonderful if this film could be shown in universities, schools and villages, if it could become an educational and pedagogical work. People often watch films that glorify violence, hatred; they grow up loving this kind of film. I think that cinema can be used differently, positively, as part of a process of questioning and understanding.
So far, you have chosen fiction. Could you turn to documentaries?
I am just finishing the post-production of my first documentary, which deals with the topic of my first film. At the time, we made a series of portraits of perpetrators of the genocide and the survivors who had come together to forgive each other. We talked a lot. This documentary returns to these testimonies, always through this approach which seeks to move towards a better understanding but also as part of this need to move towards the future, to which forgiveness is linked: we cannot forget everything that has happened, but we are obliged to live together for the benefit of our children and the new generation.
The Mercy of the Jungle by Joël Karakezi, was supported in 2013 by the Institut français Fabrique Cinéma, as well as by the l'Aide aux cinémas du monde fund in 2015.
The Fabrique Cinéma supports young filmmakers from developing countries to help them enter the international film market.
The Aide aux cinémas du monde fund provides support to foreign film-makers for film projects co-produced with France, whether they be feature-length fiction, animated films or creative documentaries.
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