Laura Waters Hinson is the director of “As We Forgive,” a compelling and inspiring documentary about the rebuilding of communities in Rwanda. Many of us struggle to forgive the driver who cuts us off or a family member who said something hurtful. This is the story of people who had to find a way to forgive the truly unforgivable.
In Rwanda, where 800,000 people were massacred in 1994, everyone who is left is either a perpetrator or a victim. There were simply too many people to jail, and so the government has released 50,000 prisoners back into the communities populated with the survivors, every one of whom lost friends and family members and must now live as neighbors with the people, sometimes the very individuals, who were responsible. As the movie’s website says,
Without the hope of full justice, Rwanda has turned to a new solution: Reconciliation. But can it be done? Can survivors truly forgive the killers who destroyed their families? Can the government expect this from its people? And can the church, which failed at moral leadership during the genocide, fit into the process of reconciliation today? In “As We Forgive,” director Laura Waters Hinson and narrator Mia Farrow explore these topics through the lives of four neighbors once caught in opposite tides of a genocidal bloodbath, and their extraordinary journey from death to life through forgiveness.
I spoke to Ms. Hinson by phone while we were both snowed in at our homes in the Washington DC area.
How do you define forgiveness?
It is complicated but forgiveness is in your heart, when looking at a wrong that has been done against you, it is saying to the person who has done that or just to yourself, “I no longer seek retribution or justice for what you have done to me. I’m letting that go. My right to be angry, my right to seek justice, I’m allowing that to go so that I can heal and move on with my life and be lifted of that burden.” You can do it therapeutically, you can do it alone, in your heart. You don’t even have to tell anybody that you’ve done it.
I would distinguish that from reconciliation, which is the next huge step where you say, “Not only have I forgiven you, but I want to work with you to rebuild to some degree my relationship with you.” That is much more difficult, much more rare.
In some cases it shouldn’t be done; if someone has traumatized you in a horrible way. But in Rwanda, these people are forced to be together. All these killers returning from prison are your neighbors. You see them everywhere you go. So what do you do? Do you reconcile, do you just forgive, or do you live isolated in your home?
I do not want to sound disrespectful to the victims of these unspeakable tragedies, but the perpetrators were victims in a way, too because they did not have freedom of choice either.
How did you find the two people who are the focus of the film and how did you get them to talk to you?
That was my chief concern going over there. This all-white American film crew — how would we gain the trust of the people? We needed a great ambassador, a translator, somebody who could get the vision of what were were trying to accomplish through a wild set of circumstances involving a recommendation on a church listserv that my roommate’s mother was on. I literally cried because he was so perfect. He himself was a survivor; he was hidden for three months protected by a Hutu friend. He went to all the people in the film and told them about what we were doing. He could relate to them and invariably they would say yes, they wanted to be a part of the film. I wrote out questions but he was the one who really interviewed them. All of the interviews ended with lots of hugs and we are still in close to those people today.
I think if you have the power to forgive, it makes you more open to people. If you can forgive, there’s really nothing they can do to hurt you.
That’s so true.
And in America, I think we find it easier to believe that something as horrific as genocide can occur than to believe that people can forgive and reach out to each other with generosity and humanity. How do you tell that story?
I watched other films on this issue and a lot of them focused on telling you many many stories of victims almost to the point where you were overwhelmed with suffering and then this rosy ending was added on. I wanted to focus on two main stories. And I wanted to give time to the perpetrators as well. I wanted people to envision themselves being those people. This was a journey I was going through personally when I was meeting those victims and then meeting the killers themselves. I was shocked that I identified with even the killers, too. Just normal people.
They just seemed like normal people who had done abnormal things.
You had hundreds of thousands of normal people who were involved in the genocide. They were farmers, they were dads, they were friends of the people in the movie. They were just normal people.
I asked a lot, “What made you do all these killings?” It’s a complicated answer. On one hand you had the mob mentality. On another level you had a corrupted government who had taken over the radio waves and the military and people were “educated” to hate their neighbors, to think of them as not actually human beings, that they were animals — the word “cockroach” was used a lot. There was physical pressure, too. The militia came to your village and said, “Hey, you, come over and help us kill these people.” If you didn’t, you would be killed, too. Many moderate Hutus were killed. And these were poor people. They were told that if they killed their neighbors, they could have their cow or their farm.
The idea of forgiveness is to see the normality in everyone, even people who do unthinkable things, the other end of the scale from thinking of them as non-human.
It was a humbling experience for me. I thought they were monsters or I would be afraid of them. But they were broken people, very mild-mannered, very ashamed. Not everyone, but many. It was very significant for them that they were trying to help, that the hands that had killed were now being used to build something for someone they had harmed. There is very little they can do, but it is something. It is important for survivors and the perpetrators. One of the survivors participates in a physical act of reconciliation to help one of the killers.
Many of these people would say to me, “I believe I have been forgiven by God. And so I will extend that forgiveness to these people even though they don’t deserve it.” That was central to those who seemed most authentically forgiving. That comes from their faith. On another level, you have the fact that the president has asked the whole country to reconcile. To forgive is not to forget. They remember the genocide and go over it and over it again to make sure no one forgets.
I’ve been given so much hope from this story. I went into it skeptically. I just couldn’t believe it. And I was so humbled, so struck by these people’s faith and their ability to act on what they believe. I was struck that they could enter into a relationship with the person who slaughtered their family. There are so many levels. It just changed me.