Imagine a new game, where the players have to look through as much Western media about Rwanda as possible, to find a truthful, informative depiction of the country. The needle in the proverbial haystack, would be a film by Canadian documentary filmmaker, Charles Domingue’s documentary film, Le Paradis Retrouve, or Paradise Found.
The documentary is yet to go on general release, in Rwanda, or indeed anywhere else.
Whenever it is, it will be if it is not the first fair, truthful, balanced documentary film about Rwanda, or aspects of Rwanda, then it will certainly be one of less than a handful.
The film arose out of one woman’s persistence, which luckily found an open minded, adventurous documentary filmmaker.
Like many Rwandans, Rwandan Canadian, Chantal Mudahogora, has lived with the frustration of being confronted with the gulf between the reality of her land of birth, and its depiction, based on ill informed, or deliberately misleading perceptions.
So, when she came across a Canadian globetrotting documentary filmmaker, it was a lightbulb moment. He made films all around the world, including Africa, so why not him, why not in Rwanda, why not ask him to make a truthful film, that might put even a small dent, in the wall of misinformation.
A Facebook conversation between filmmaker and insistent “initiator” began, in which she was convinced she had the perfect destination for his next film, the difficulty being that he too, had a few ideas of his own, about where the next film would be.
“It came as an idea, but I did not how to do it, because I don’t know anything about filming” said Mudahogora, “then I saw him [Domingues] on face book, and I reached out, and we started talking…” A year and a half later, they were still chatting about it, until Domingues was convinced to travel to Rwanda.
Now the task was to find a convergence between the two unlikely creative partners. One, a documentary filmmaker, whose interest is in teasing out people’s life stories, and the other, an activist who knew that all she wanted to see, was a more balanced picture of Rwanda.
In her mind, why not an exploration of the beauty of Rwanda, and what it has become in the last twenty plus, years, a world away from its tragic past. But as an experienced documentary film maker, he knew it would not be so simple. Even with her support in making contacts, he would have to move around Rwanda, researching, and only then, would an idea of the story of Rwanda emerge.
“It started with the first trip [to Rwanda]” explains Domingus, “I didn’t know what to expect…I see Akagera, Nyungwe [Akagera, Nyungwe, national parks] for me, it’s just touristic attractions…I cannot make a documentary about touristic sites…” Domingues recalls.
He knew that whatever he saw in front of him, there would be people behind it. The Akagera was all but destroyed, now it is thriving. People destroyed it, and people restored it. So, he drifted towards the people, and their stories. In Akagera, he met veterinarian, Tony Mudakikwa, who along with others, worked to make the national park what it is now. The more people he met, the more the story took shape in his mind.
“When you listen to their stories…it’s incredible, the resilience of the people, everyone has an incredible story, you could make a film about every person that I met in Rwanda. It’s inspiring for the people, the young people in Canada…they believe in the future…”
One of those stories was his guide, when he went to film the mountain gorillas. Yes, he was keen to see the gorillas, but even more engaging it seems, was the guide.
“I like to see the gorillas, but then there was this guide, Emmanuel, he is not just a guide. He is an example of redemption, because he used to kill the animals to feed himself. Other countries, what would they do with Emmanuel [a poacher], they would put him in jail, and he is finished for the rest of his life. Here, they say, OK, you are the expert, you become the defender of the wildlife, and he is the best. And his life…is like a Hollywood story…Just like his country, he goes from the worst to the best…”
“When we say Rwanda, it’s humanity at its best, and it takes time to discover that. If you just come for two weeks, you will see the touristic things, but to see people, to find out, you need to take your time, and you need a connection…”
That discovery suggested the title of the film to him, Humanity at its best. “In Canada, when I say I am going to Rwanda, people say, ‘what don’t go there…genocide,’ they think it’s happening right now, they have no idea. What is impressive Rwanda, is what you have done in the last twenty-eight years, start from scratch…but it could have gone into so many different directions…and Rwanda is lucky to have the best President in the world…He is straight, he has modern ideas, he is into environmentalism, ecology, education, health…”
The end result of all the searching, is a moving, informative, authored film, in which the film maker vividly communicates his feelings about his impressions of Rwanda. His empathy with the subject is self evident, but it would be doing both him and the subject of his film, an injustice, to suggest that Paradise Found, is a film that favours Rwanda.
What it is, is a thoughtful, honest expression of Rwanda, through the eyes of an experienced documentary film maker, with a delicate, nuanced touch, which should captivate any audience.
For Mudahogora, it must have been like watching an alchemist throwing all manner of things together, hoping anxiously, that he will in the end produce gold. Her wish now is that the film is seen by as many people as possible, to which Domingues, who hopes to have it also available in Rwanda, says Amen.