Documentaries are an odd medium, aren’t they? At least in terms of critical purposes. I’m not saying they’re difficult to review. Au contraire, but they are a separate entity. They are almost critic-proof. You can’t review them on the basis of a linear narrative, because when you really think about it, there is none. You can’t review them on the basis of the performances, because there are none. You can’t review them on the basis on the screenplay, because, with the exception of a plan on what to discuss and who to question, there is none. Sure, you can judge it on the basis of the technical composition (tone, cinematography, lighting, music, etc.), but that’s not what matters.
In the big scheme of things, documentaries rely on their themes. The main thing to inspect is how those themes are conveyed. Documentaries have tones that range from whimsical and majestic (MicroCosmos), to deathly serious (The Cats of Mirikitani), to philosophical (The Secret), to musical observance (Michael Jackson’s This is It). Conveying its themes properly requires not merely technical composition, but also alluring power, fascination, be it good or bad, and, at times, charisma, like in a Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore documentary. One documentary that certainly does its job very well is Ghosts of Rwanda, produced by PBS, a.k.a. Pretty Boring Shit (hahaha…I’m just playing).
The theme of this documentary is the 1994 Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus and this documentary was released in response to the ten-year anniversary of that genocide. I already discussed a good chunk of the genocide’s historical content in my Hotel Rwanda review. However, surprisingly, the film actually balances the juxtaposition of the atrocities of the genocide with the limited action of the United States. The film takes a perspective of the United States that is, concurrently, contemptuous and painfully, agonizingly humane. We felt sorry for what was going on in Rwanda, but we didn’t want to cause any additional trouble. Nevertheless, it is definitely frustrating, angering, and disdainful to see how the United States barely made any effort to rescue the Rwandans and the movie adopts a tone that is embarrassingly and horrifically retrospective.
However, thinking of the film’s tone brought to mind a quote from a Ryan Michaels review of Moonrise Kingdom, where he said that film was, “unified in tone, but varied in emotion.” That statement can most definitely be applied to this documentary. While the film soaks in that embarrassed and horrified retrospective tone, the emotions range from sad to furious to dumbfounded. The stories and images presented in this documentary are fascinatingly upsetting. They draw you in and tear your soul and heart apart. The black screens with dates and locations on them ratchet up the tension, as the viewer is anxious on what horrific moment of the genocide is behind that black screen. The camera persists on showing thousands of slaughtered civilians, some of them slowly rotting away into a skeletal configuration. They emphasize the fact that the Rwandan genocide was, in the words of Michael Jackson, “…a nightmare. A horrifying nightmare.”
RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four