In January of 2011, I stood onstage at the Egyptian Theatre at the Sundance Film Festival with an amazing band of characters. Among them were Ishmael Ntihabose, a Rwandan genocide survivor, and Joshua Rasplica Rodd, my best friend from my Peace Corps days. It was not lost on me that this was a very unlikely place to be standing. You see, Ishmael, the executive producer, was probably the poorest person in the room, and Joshua, a co-Producer, had no previous experience in film. We had just premiered our film Kinyarwanda to a capacity audience, and the energy in the room was electric.
This humbling experience showed me how film is one of the most powerful mediums of our time. It has the power to move masses, and it has the power to inform. I hope Kinyarwanda sheds more light on the struggles of Rwanda, yet I hope the film also emphasizes the power of forgiveness. Rwandans were proud of the film, so we were proud of the film.
From 2000-2002, I served as an Education for Development Peace Corps Volunteer in Côte d'Ivoire, and I met Joshua during our time in training. He was stationed in the Muslim North while I was in a small village in the western part of the country. We were at least one day's travel away from one another, but he was one of the few people that came to visit me. He even brought his parents to see me when they visited him from the States. It might not seem like much, but when you are living in the middle of nowhere, one visit means everything.
On 9/11, an older gentleman walked past my house with his machete and said, "I think WWIII is about to start." I powered up my radio and listened to what sounded like dialogue from a Hollywood blockbuster movie. I heard things like, "We've got to get them back!" "They hate our freedoms," and "This is horrific, it's time to kick some ass!" It was intense, painful... and entertaining. I listened to the BBC and Radio France International most of that night.
On Sept. 13, 2001, Muslim leaders from various surrounding villages visited Joshua at his home. They came to express their condolences to the horror inflicted on his country and to assure him that everything was fine. Joshua's love and appreciation of Islamic culture was further solidified through their incredibly gracious gesture.
While I was learning my craft at NYU's Film School, Joshua was making his way through Africa and through graduate school, earning his Master's in Epidemiology and Political Geography from Tulane University. Some of his work took him to Rwanda, where on his first day in Kigali he jumped into a cab and met Ishmael Ntihabose, a Rwandan Genocide survivor who was driving a taxi to put himself through engineering school. Ishmael was playing Bruce Springsteen on the taxi's radio, and he and Joshua immediately hit it off.
Joshua learned that one of Ishmael's dreams was to be a filmmaker, so Joshua put him in touch with me via email. Ishmael and I communicated for a few years until he asked me to come to Rwanda to help him make a film. Ishmael wanted to tell the untold story of how Muslims worked together with Christians to save lives during the Rwandan Genocide, and as of this April, it will have been eighteen years since the beginning of the genocide.
When I arrived in Rwanda in 2009 to begin preparations on the film I was reunited with Joshua and met Ishmael in person for the first time. Not only did Ishmael inspire me, but also Rwanda and its people had a profound and lasting effect on my life. Through this inspiration, we created Kinyarwanda. Africa brought Ishmael, Joshua, and I together, and it also brought Kinyarwanda into my life. The film has empowered Rwandans to share their stories with the world. Their story is not about genocide. Their story is about faith, hope, life, love and forgiveness. We have so much to learn from their example.
So as we stood on that Sundance stage what mattered to me the most was not the applause from the audience for what was on the screen; rather, it was my appreciation for the amazing journey that had brought us there, together. I will end by paraphrasing Robert Redford. When he was asked in an interview if films have the power to change things politically or socially, he said no. He said they might change how people dress or whether they wear a mustache, but not the social order. He then stated, "But I will never stop trying." And neither will I.
The award-winning film Kinyarwanda is now available on Video On Demand on Xfinity and Verizon FiOS , for rental or purchase on Amazon Instant Video, and coming to more digital platforms later this month. To watch a preview of the film, visit www.snagfilms.com/films/title/kinyarwanda.