Excerpt: Art from Trauma

The following is an excerpt from Art from Trauma: Genocide and Healing beyond Rwanda (August 2019) edited by Rangira Béa Gallimore and Gerise Herndon. The excerpt is written by Natalia Ledford.

I first met Chantal Kalisa in 2009 as I was finishing my first year at the University of Nebraska. I had just completed a unit in my African history class, which was studying the events of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. During one of the most efficient genocides in history, one million people were killed within just one hundred days. I distinctly remember leaving class and questioning what state Rwandan society could be in fifteen years later, when I passed a bulletin board and my eyes fell on a flyer that read “UNL Summer Study Abroad in Rwanda.” The next thing I knew I was meeting with Chantal, who would be leading the three-week field study. Upon introducing myself, I learned that she was Rwandan but grew up in exile in Burundi. Much of her extended family had still been in Rwanda in 1994, and many of their lives were lost during the genocide. I was struck by her poise when she explained that the reason she had focused so much on this point in history academically was because it had affected her on such a personal level. Before Chantal, I had never had a professor who could connect to her subject matter in such a profound way, and perhaps for that reason she became one of the most important mentors I would ever have.

I was a journalism student at the time and was developing a passion for documentary filmmaking. Chantal was not a journalism professor, yet she influenced me as a storyteller more than anyone. When I asked her what she thought about an idea I had to shoot a documentary during our field study, she responded by pointing out that even with good intentions it’s possible to do more harm than good when seeking out stories in a country like Rwanda. She proceeded to paint a picture of Western journalists over the past fifteen years from the perspective of many survivors. She told me to imagine droves of Americans, Brits, Belgians, and so on, showing up just after the genocide and shoving cameras in the faces of survivors, patronizingly asking them about their trauma before even asking if they wanted to be filmed. As this had been the experience of too many people, I had to understand that the camera itself, if not used wisely, could easily become a source of trauma even if the intention is to empower. As I listened to her, I realized there was much I had yet to learn about Rwandan society, and I assumed Chantal would end the conversation by advising me to forget the whole documentary idea. Instead she surprised me. As she completed this short lesson on the perils of irresponsible storytelling in Rwanda, she told me it’s still possible to approach a story the right way and that many survivors indeed wanted a platform from which to tell their stories. One just needed to understand how complicated it could be to do this the “right way” when your subjects are people who have lived through extreme trauma and injustice.

Then she said something that I have never forgotten and that I still repeat to myself every time I pick up my camera. She said, “This is all to say, that before you start filming, the most important thing you have to ask yourself is, ‘What are my intentions here?’ Do you want your subjects to do something positive for you, or do you want to do something positive for your subjects?” She believed a journalist who intended the former would not take the consent, dignity, and limits of a survivor as seriously as a journalist who intended the latter. She was drawing the line between what she saw as exploitative endeavors and what she saw as empowering ones.

If my goal was to empower, I would have to attempt to see the world from the perspective of a society that had survived a horror beyond anything I could comprehend. Before our departure for Kigali, she took the time to sit with me on numerous occasions and converse about different scenarios we might encounter in Rwanda as I filmed my short documentary. She managed to be cheerful, humorous, and inviting even while asking me to critically analyze the deepest layers of my own Western socialization, my privilege, my assumptions about Africa, and my role as a filmmaker. She always stressed how hyperconscious people must be about their own conditioning, as well as about the invasive dangers of Western hegemony, before stepping into another country and assuming they understood what was going on.

Her perspective and many criticisms about conventional media portrayals of Africa made her a remarkably influential and important mentor for me. At that time the media seemed full of video clips of the intrepid Western reporter standing in African refugee camps, walking up to starving children and mothers, speaking about their turmoil in front of them, yet as if they weren’t there, seemingly without their consent. The intent was always to shine a light on their victimhood. Chantal pushed her students to question this approach. This arguably degrading style of reporting was rarely ever used to cover tragedies in Western countries, so why was it the norm in Africa? By making me question conventional approaches to international reporting, Chantal helped me determine what type of storyteller I wanted to become. She would always point out that recognizing the full humanity of those on camera would mean honoring their dignity and giving them agency over their own testimonies.

When we finally went to Rwanda, the experience changed my life, so much so that I ended up going back a year later to shoot a long-form documentary. We entitled it Komora, which in Kinyarwanda means “to heal.” The documentary focused on the orphan survivors of the genocide in Rwanda and was codirected by our friend Emmanuel Habimana.

At the age of nine Emmanuel survived the genocide, and by codirecting a film about a history he shared with fellow orphans, he was in a position to educate viewers on a level that only he could reach. If it weren’t for Chantal I’m not sure if I would have understood the importance of giving survivors an opportunity not only to speak in front of the camera but also to guide the film itself from behind the camera.

It was a little jarring at first to return to Rwanda without Chantal, yet I soon realized she had become the voice in my head, and in that way she always felt  present. It turns out that this feeling endures years later, even after her death. I got the news of her sudden passing after I moved to Guatemala, a country that continues to struggle against the same forces that led to its own genocide in the 1980s. As I move through this space and look for internal guidance for how to support Guatemalan survivors of extreme injustices, I constantly find myself asking, “What would Chantal say about this? What would Chantal tell me to do?” An answer tends to come quickly and set me at ease. I can’t know how many different students, colleagues, friends, and family members she inspired, but I think it’s safe to guess that she lives on in all of us in the same way she lives on in me: as a guiding light always insisting that we listen first, speak second, and never stop questioning our own intentions as we establish our places and purposes in the world.

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