Rwanda isn’t what you think it is anymore
Although genocide is what most people think of when they think of this small, land-locked country. Back in 1994 the ongoing conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi escalated and over the course of 100 days some people estimate that up to 1,000,000 Tutsi and Hutus were kill on the orders of the government. Entire families were murdered. Women were systematically and brutally raped.
Since then there has been a somewhat “benign dictatorship,” as our Fearless Leader Dan would say. Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, has maintained control and is widely credited with turning the country into one of the more business-friendly countries in Africa. But his government’s reported wide scale human rights violations and particular keenness on arresting journalists and confiscating equipment has us on edge.
Despite multiple attempts to gain a filming permit, the government required us to sign a politically motivated release stating that we would not pretend that the Genocide had not happened, which felt more like a rouse to control content than actually prevent a “rumor.” They also needed a week or so to process it and vet us. And we were already in Nigeria. Luckily, what we’re actually doing is primarily education-based collaboration.
While we are standing in the immigration line at Kigali airport I check for wifi. Success! Free wifi in the airport! All three of us that are missing visas for Rwanda check our email. Minutes before we speak to an immigration officer, every one of us has an acceptance letter that allows us into the country. Business-friendly indeed.
Here, French seems to be the dominant Romantic language.
We switch to new greetings:
Hello – Bonjour
Thank You – Merci
Our hotel is off of one of the unpaved dirt roads that offers an easy reminder of Nigeria. The view overlooks the twinkling lights of the outskirts of Kigali. Glad for the silence and the calm, our mosquito nets drawn and our equipment plugged in and charging, we settled into the outdoor dining area of the hotel to enjoy our meal and head to bed. We’ll be in Rwanda for less than 24 hours, so tomorrow is going to be more hustle, more kanju….
We have scheduled a 9am interview at the hotel the next day. It is a 2D interview only, so I’m looking forward to finally getting some sleep in.
Around 7:00am, Jenn wakes me up. our 9am interviewee isn’t going to be able to get to us for the interview because it’s Umuganda. We need to get to the Genocide Memorial in the next half hour before all the taxis stop running.
Umuganda is a prime example of the polarity of Kegame’s government. The last Saturday of every month every citizen in Rwanda is required to stop what they are doing and contribute to some kind of community service between 8am and 11am. No taxis, no open shops, no nothing. On one hand, it’s an all imposing, heavy handed government law enforced by truckloads of AK-47 sporting militia that roam the streets telling people what to do. On the other hand, it’s a chance for a war-ravaged nation to come together as a community and rebuild – and the effects are staggering: the streets are clean, the parks are beautiful, and the people generally seem to be be enjoying themselves. Even the President supposedly comes out and joins hand in hand with his citizens.
The hotel is calling taxis for us at 7:40am and no one will come pick us up. Through the trees and across several hills we see the black slats that are part of the Genocide Memorial grounds. With no directions other than “head towards the black slats” we sling the backpacks on and start hiking through the Rwandan countryside.
Red dirt up on our legs as we make our way to the main road. The highway is deserted except for some people cleaning the sidewalks and the sporadic police truck dropping off a an armed gunman to shout directions to those cleaning. We keep looking up and up, guessing which switchback is going to get us to the next switchback that will switch us around and across to the Memorial. We don’t dare take out the Ladybug or the 5D, but stopping to take pictures on our iPhones doesn’t seem to get too much attention, save a curious group of teenagers who ask to be in a picture with us. Perhaps they put up the Tupac painting on the last switchback? It was so good it kinda looked like Aaron. Dan makes sure to take tourist pictures so that if our phones get confiscated, which we have been warned was a possibility, we would just look like idiot tourists and not filmmakers who needed to be interrogated for three days behind closed doors with no outside contact in order to determine our intentions before our equipment was confiscated.
The Genocide Memorial
At the Genocide Memorial, Umuganda is in action. Dozens of people are mopping the entryway together – washing, soaping, scrubbing. Dan picks up a broom and gleefully joins in. A group of young men in a show of great strength and somewhat brazen boldness, pick up a car that is parked in the entryway and move it so that the scrubbing can continue. But our time here is very limited. We only have until 3:30 when a taxi will pick us up to take us back to the airport. Thankfully, a few people take time away from their national chores to show us the grounds of the Memorial and help us arrange the day.
We use the Ricoh Theta to explain how 360 filming works to the team in Kigali and quickly scout the complex for locations that would be best in 360. The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre was established by the Aegis Trust, an organization dedicated to preventing genocide through political action and community education. Each element in the complex has a different function supporting those goals: classrooms where students can learn from the past, a massive amphitheater where performances can heal, mass graves where over 350,000 bodies from the 1994 genocide are buried, gardens where one can reflect and rebuild, museum exhibitions where visitors can learn.
Perhaps the most stunning of these was the Children’s Room where blown-up pictures of children look you straight in the eye as you read about how each of them was murdered. With a few extra moments of time, I paused to search their eyes for meaning and understanding, knowing that my few hours here wouldn’t be enough to fully absorb the pain that this country went through.
We decide to split up the team: Aaron and Dan peel off to conduct 2D interviews in the gardens. Jenn comes with me to set up the VR equipment. Initially the first VR set-up was going to be a classroom experience, but because of Umuganda, no students can get to the Memorial and the teachers were already there. Instead, it will be a teacher training moment. After our respective morning shoots we will come back together to both capture a performance. This is more than a theatrical performance piece. It’s a confessional, a memorial, a warning, and and offering created by theatre director and choreographer Hope Azeda.
For the Genocide teacher training class location I chose the Peace Room because of the controlled, yet active environment – there’s ND on the windows so you can almost see outside and I shift the set-up of the room to be against a wall to allow for close details in posters and distant interactions. I position the camera as if the audience is part of the class. In close proximity are notes from previous classes, which are barely legible with the Ladybug lens. The teacher guiding the class will be close to the camera as well as the graphic images of the story he is about to tell as a teaching mechanism.
When we wrap, I leave the Ladybug set-up in the Peace Room while we get some lunch at the on-site cafe. This is the first time on this trip that I have walked out of a room without putting my gear well out of sight or on my back.
Hope Azeda arrives like a dazzling gazelle. Her posture is perfect, her smile gentle, her movement graceful. I imagine she was or is a dancer. I ask Hope to chose 5 minutes of the hour-long piece that has the biggest change from beginning to end. She is working under the limitations of having few available actors considering Umuganda and KigaliUp – a massive local music festival happening the same day. We scout locations – agree the classroom is a bit bland & with terrible acoustics for recording sound. The rose garden is ideal. Aaron shoots his 2d footage during the actors rehearsals for the VR take, which will be one continuous shot that he can’t be in the middle of.
For the VR shot, we set the camera atop a non-functioning water fountain that is circled by a walkway. Ideal for the 360 camera and a luscious setting. Sound is key to this piece and is also going to be a major problem because we can’t boom and only have 2 lavs. We mic the main actor and the musician and use the ambisonics both next to the musician and in the center of the piece. An even bigger problem is that the Ladybug SDK crashes repeatedly while I’m trying to adjust the camera settings during the rehearsals. At least a dozen times the frame freezes and once it goes completely black. And each time that happens, I’m resetting the recording parameters over from scratch for each lens. The auto settings can’t work because the gain drops out completely, giving me a black screen. By now we are also running out of time, it’s 2:50 and we haven’t rolled once on the performance.
As I stare down the dark screen of my crashed computer, I finally hear what the main actor is saying in rehearsal: “I can still hear the children that I murdered begging me, “please don’t kill me.”” I’ve been so wrapped up in the technical problems that I haven’t listened to a word of what they are actually saying.
When we are finally ready to roll, I take a moment to thank each of the performers for sharing their stories with us. And I give Hope some pointers to adjust the performance for 360, including spreading the action around, yet still keeping it grouped. Lighting is also proving to be a challenge as the shadows are drastically darker than where the light is shining through the trees. The actors need to “find their light”, just like in a theatre production. The performers take notes smoothly and adjust immediately.
Finally, I get a few settings close enough to capture a visible sequence. I’ll just have to hope that we get something good enough that it only needs minor adjustments in post. We roll once on the eight minute performance. I check the file. Solid capture. One more take for safety and we’re done.
Kigali on a Saturday
We rush off to the waiting taxi with repeated hugs and thanks to the people so boldly sharing their past and hope for the future. Our first stop is at the hotel to pick up our remaining luggage. Then we have the taxi driver take us through the main part of Kigali to capture 2D shots. But it’s Saturday and the bustle of the business district is calm.
Back at the Kigali airport less than 24 hours after we landed, we all wish we had had more time here. And we’re hoping Aaron can easily get his visa at the Kenyan border. But this time through security the problem isn’t my camera or helmet, it’s Aaron’s camera clamps, which security thinks can be used to perpetrate violence. I dramatically swipe the clamps across my arms to show that the clamps can’t cut skin, but they aren’t quite convinced. So I clamp my own hand to show and dangle it in front of them back and forth in a dramatic display, hoping it will convince them that it is useless as a weapon. When they suggest the clamp could be hooked up to a battery, we confess that our battery had already been taken away by at another airport security. They laugh and let us through, but not before the security lady gets Aaron’s passport information – supposedly so that if anything happens they can trace it back to us. But I think she also asked him for his phone number.