I frequently check out new documentary videos at my public library. As a result I often find some rather outstanding material from time-to-time. Such was the case this week with the 2006 video In the Tall Grass: Inside the Citizen-based Justice System Gacaca. This 57 minute film takes a penetrating look into the search for redemption in Rwanda.

For those who do not know the facts the story is almost impossible to believe. In 1994, after the president died in a plane crash, the Hutu people decided to take their anger out on the Tutsi people, who lives in the same towns and villages throughout Rwanda. The result was a 100 day genocide that led to over 800,000 deaths. Neighbors killed neighbors; men, women and children were all brutally murdered as defenseless victims. The carnage was so different than other 20th century genocides because it was not government sponsored but a rather spontaneous explosion of ancient prejudice and unleashed mass hatred (also tribally based as much is in Africa) that led to unmitigated human disaster. Nothing quite like it has happened in modern history. So where is Rwanda today, fourteen years later?

In a real sense this film picks up where Hotel Rwanda, the powerful movie starring Don Cheadle, left off. In the Tall Grass focuses on the Hutu and Tutsi as they now struggle through Rwanda’s long reconciliation process. Rwanda has a unique justice process called Gacaca, which amounts to a grassroots community network of courts. Villagers listen, consider what they hear, testify and then decide. (I found myself thinking that we Americans think that we have civil justice in our court system but this one works quite well without all the money and time that we need.)

With unprecedented access to these Gacaca courts the film crews produced this amazing documentary by following several cases. They then chose to focus on only one woman, Color
Joanita (photo to left), to give the viewer a real feeling for what happens within the process itself. A lone survivor, who was herself attacked but survived, Joanita testifies before the village council and the people, She identifies the killer of her family as Anastase Butera. She says he killed her husband and five children. He denies it, saying he was present but did not do the actual killing. Through this single focus on two people the viewer is given a stark and terrifying insight into the lives of Rwandans today. Joanita wants justice but she also feels she can never be reconciled with this man if he will not face up to what he did. AnastaseIttgbutcu_bw_2
is shown as arrogant and nursing the old racial prejudices that led to the genocide in the first place. More than anything Joanita wants to find the remains of her children. A neighbor comes forward and tells her where she saw them buried and eventually their remains are found. Her story is, of course, only one of thousands and thousands but it seems typical of the pain that ordinary people face every day in post-genocidal Rwanda.

I found it particularly interesting that Joanita wanted to find the bones of her children and then give them a Christian burial. This brought her great peace when it finally happened. Ittgcoffins_bw
The scenes of the murderer washing the bones of her children are deeply moving and troubling. In the Tall Grass gives the viewer a terrible and troubling picture of the tremendous challenges that still face Rwanda and will trouble the country for decades to come. Can post-genocide countries must move from violence to real peace? The jury is still out in Rwanda but progress has been made. This requires justice and mercy and this invites a Christian response. One of the more amazing things about Rwanda is that it is the Christian Church that has a powerful role in this process. I have met leaders of the Rwandan Church and I can tell you that they are deeply involved in this difficult process of healing an entire nation.

This documentary is moving. It is also chilling. And it should not be watched by young children. In fact, some of you will likely not be able to handle what you see. It left me with a restless evening, to tell you the truth, but I feel like I now understand what is going on in Rwanda in a whole new way. I shall pray for my Rwanda brothers and sisters even more because I saw In the Tall Grass. if you are not faint of heart I recommend it.

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  1. Edward Holm April 22, 2008 at 9:25 am

    Pastor Armstrong,
    I have been attending your sessions this week in Newport, NC. Each night I leave challenged in my thinking. In my experience I have found the stridency of evangelicalism to be disconcerting and I find hope in your abilility to “name the powers” for what they are or seem to be. I look forward to reading the several books I have picked up at the sessions. One of the fascinating things I have experienced in your talks is the perspective you have over the events shaping your lifetime. I am the same age as you and have been through those same events. The word “formation” comes to mind. It is an ongoing process in life and history as we are reformed in the image of Christ. Unfortunately, it is a word lacking in evangelical circles and I find it refreshing to hear you use it. Thanks for your words of encouragement and hope. I look forward to receiving your blog regularly and responding to it from time to time.
    Edward Holm

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