About the Movie

Birds Are Singing in Kigali, a film by Joanna Kos-Krauze and the late Krzysztof Krauze (1953-2014), depicts the process of recovering from a trauma, a tragic necessity to choose life after miraculously surviving the hell of extermination. 

The plot is set in Poland and in Rwanda. The filmmakers chose the formula of an intimate tale, eschewing any pathos, sermonizing or graphic displays of cruelty. The main characters are two women: Anna, an ornithologist studying the vulture population in Rwanda, and Claudine, a young Tutsi woman. 

The women are broken, incapable of re-entering the routine of daily life, of undertaking the arduous task of restoring their own capacity to experience feelings. But life goes on, and their decisions must either affirm or reject it. Their mutual indifference, dislike, and a sense of alienation gradually turn into a kind of brittle bond between the women, underlined by psychological wounds, concern, and a drop of hope. 

Although focused on the psychological, subtle dimension of the plot, the film does not elude the realities. It chronicles the wrestling with Polish authorities, the living conditions at a refugee centre, the everyday reality of Polish backwoods, and, lastly, the overflowing Rwandan orphanages resulting from the slaughter, also as a consequence of rapes. 

Most importantly, however, the film’s authors set extreme experiences and intimate descriptions of suffering against the vast, mysterious and visually riveting presence of Nature. It is Nature that becomes the final comfort after the word “humanity” has proven to be empty of meaning. In this film, which continuously demonstrates the clash of cultures, skin colors and languages, relief comes from the open-ended, immeasurable diversity of other species and the protective, undisturbed presence of landscapes.

The filmmakers raise questions, boldly draw the drama surrounding their characters, but refrain from offering definite answers. They understand the challenge that the unfathomable and inexpressible reality of self-extermination of our species, which has been recurring through centuries, poses for rational humanism. Genocidal slaughter in Rwanda remains one of the most painful wounds of the modern world. The explosion of evil on such a scale cannot be expressed in words or related in a story.

“The end of poetry” declared by philosophers after the Holocaust meant that words must be viewed with suspicion, above all such words as Man, humanity, progress, and – finally – God. In Rwanda, just as in Europe during World War II, the inter-human covenant was breached. In 1994, our collective memory was wounded for centuries to come. As one of the film’s characters puts it succinctly, “A million people butchered in three months… More efficient than the Nazis. And all killed by hand”.

The choice of the unexpected “bird” theme, which ties together Polish-Rwandan human life stories into accidental relationships (beyond politics, humanitarian missions or the media), provides a capacious, suggestive metaphor. The birds’ falling silent during the slaughter and their gradual return to singing several years later (as intimated in the film’s title) are not just authentic facts. They are also a symbolic representation of the human experience of spiritual death and the slow process of revival.

Philosophically and symbolically, the film attempts to go further, to transcend species-centrism, or the conviction that homo sapiens are superior to the rest of the creation. The population of African birds, which seems to be cast in the role of a collective supporting character of the film, points to the fundamental question about the status of the human species, about human/non-human polarity, through which we strive to order and judge the world. Savagery, bestiality, being alien to “human” customs – these were the attributes assigned to the tribes of Africa during the centuries of colonialism.

 

We describe the cruelty of genocide as “animal-like”, and the dehumanisation of victims is the necessary condition for genocide to take place. This is what the Nazis did by comparing Jews to vermin, just like those individuals who killed their neighbors and friends in Rwanda. “Tutsi are like cockroaches. They have infested our homes. They eat our food, they drink our water” – such words, inciting to murder, were broadcast by the public radio in Rwanda. With images and sounds of Nature – viewed here through the lense of science, but presented as the mystery of creation – the filmmakers point to the fragility of a moral order based on the unquestioned pre-eminence of the human/non-human opposition. They make us view this distinction with suspicion.

 

There is no answer to the question “Why?” put by the film’s protagonist to one of the people who murdered her family. Why does a person kill their neighbor, friend or a child? We do not know. The wound torn in the very tissue of the human community during a genocide is also made in the language, in culture, an in the religious order. 

Artists wrestle with the task of restoring continuity. “Hatred is incurable”, says the film’s main character. And yet the entire project of Birds Are Singing in Kigali makes an attempt at healing. This healing takes place through expression, through narration, through the language whose meaning we have to learn anew, even though we lost the confidence in it long ago. 

The Polish-African story becomes a mournful meditation and a metaphor for the inexpressible. Human language, tainted forever by hatred, gives in, at a symbolic level, to the voices of birds, so that they, instead of human beings, can relate the story of human evil.

KAZIMIERA SZCZUKA

(literary historian and critic, journalist, feminist, social activist, co-founder of the Congress of Women in Poland)