Pull Focus: Laura Waters Hinson

by Claire Darby

Interview with Laura Waters Hinson
Director of As We Forgive

Laura Waters Hinson is a filmmaker and photographer based in Washington, DC. She is the founder of Image Bearer Pictures and recently launched the Living Bricks Campaign, a multi-media viewer project to support reconciliation efforts in Rwanda. Laura received a master of fine arts degree in filmmaking from American University, and was the winner of a Student Academy Award for Best Documentary for her film As We Forgive, a film about the reconciliation efforts between the victims and perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I interviewed her before a screening of her film at American University.

First off, tell me how you got connected to this project. 

LWH:As an undergrad, I went to Furman University, where I studied Political Science. I had studied abroad in South Africa, so I spent time studying the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the work there being done after apartheid. So this concept of national reconciliation was something that always fascinated me.

But I never thought I’d go back to Africa. I thought it was just too wild and far away. But then in 2005 I was in the middle of my MFA at American University, and a group of people from my church were going to go to Rwanda to establish a partnership there with a sister community, and they asked me to go. At first I didn’t really want to go, but ultimately I said yes. And I really just went to build friendships and to learn—that was the whole purpose of the trip for me.

Going there, all I knew was what had happened in 1994—all I knew about was the genocide. But I hadn’t heard anything about the reconciliation. And while I was there I met a man named Bishop John Rucyahana, who is in the film, and he’s the Anglican Bishop. And little did I know that he was this leader of reconciliation in the country—both the spiritual leader, and also just beloved by everybody on either side of the issue. He’s an advisor to President Kagame, and is incredibly well-respected. And he told me his story—I met him, had a meeting with him, and he told me his story of reconciling with the people who’d killed his family. And how he had felt called after the genocide to return to his homeland, to Rwanda, although he’d been a refugee almost his whole life. But he came back to Rwanda and began ministering in the prisons where all the killers were, where he inevitably met some of the people who had brutally murdered and raped his niece and other members of his family. He felt like that he’d received the strength to forgive them and actually even reach out and love these killers.

So he was the one who started telling me about how the government had released 50 or 60,000 perpetrators. Due to the backlog of court cases here in the country, and really as a matter of pragmatism, President Kagame had asked people to reconcile. I had a couple of people in Rwanda tell me “What choice did we have? We could execute everybody. But we’d already had a million people killed. There’s not enough land to bury them all. So what do we do?” So they made this radical decision to release the perpetrators who had confessed, and to re-integrate them in communities, and ask people to forgive and reconcile. I mean it’s ridiculous. You can’t imagine that happening anywhere, just 10, 12 years after genocide.

So, I just was awe-struck by this whole scenario, and wondering in my own heart, is this something that I could do? Could I forgive somebody that had killed my family? No, not outside of a miracle. So it just totally arrested me in my whole being, this idea of radical forgiveness after genocide. So I spent 2005 and early ‘06 raising money from friends and family and kind of trying to plan out a film for the next summer that would be about these people who are reportedly reconciling with the killers of their families. So that’s how it all got started.

How much of the story that you eventually got did you know before you went to shoot? What research did you (or could you do) before you went back to Rwanda?

LWH: I definitely came back with something very different than what I had started out to find. Originally I was going to focus much more on Joy, the child, and was going to follow her going home to visit her family and going to the area where so many of her family members had been killed. But when I got to Rwanda, first of all communication is so difficult from here to there, and there was really no way I could do very good pre-production. I had met Joy at the school and I knew Bishop John, and those were the only people I knew. But Bishop John was a good person to know because he knows the whole world in Rwanda. So he really introduced me to some key people and key organizations that were doing reconciliation work and mediation between parties, and so those organizations are who led me to the stories that I ultimately found.

But once I got to Rwanda I realized that what was really representative were a minority of people who were starting to forgive and then the majority who were saying “Ok, I won’t revenge kill this man who’s returning who killed my family, but I’m not ready to forgive. I don’t want to reconcile and I don’t even want to talk to him, even though he’s come back and lives 5 minutes away from me.”

And so I said the film needed to reflect where people really were in this process. It was easy to find Rosaria’s story—the woman who had forgiven. She and the man really wanted to tell me their story. But with Chantal and John, it was much more difficult to find somebody that was really still in the midst of their suffering and brokenness and grief and was willing to talk. That was a lot tougher to find.

Tell me a little about the production process–where you were, when you were there, were you shooting by yourself? How were you doing it?

LWH: We had a little rag-tag group of student filmmakers. I brought my roommate who wasn’t even a film person—she was working for a lobbyist and took a couple weeks off and acted as our production assistant, and Casey Kirby—who is also an alum of AU—came to help me with cinematography. And then we had another friend who was at a different film school in LA come and it was the four of us. But the most key element of our team was our driver/translator. He was just the most incredible blessing in our lives. He was a genocide survivor who’d studied the political history of genocide in college, and he spoke four languages. He had a huge heart for reconciliation; he was just this amazing individual. He really got the vision of the film, and then he was able to communicate it to all of the people that we were going to ask if they would tell their stories. I give him so much of the credit. Emmanuel Kwizera is his name. Because we came in and it was his heart and his character that led these people to trust him, and then they in turn trusted us to tell us their stories.

So we had the four of us plus Emanuel in a car, and we were shooting in opposite sides of the country, so we were based in the capital, Kigali, which is in the center of the country. Then we would drive up to the north one day, and we would drive down to the south the next day, and so on. We were kind of all over the place. We shot for 31 days straight with one day off the whole time. We just shot continuously. And it was incredible. I think it will be the most amazing shoot of my life. So many doors opened and so many people came out of the woodwork to help us. We got to interview President Kagame, which was totally crazy. It was just a really amazing experience. In spite of our amateur status, our naiveté, people were willing to help us.

How did you build trust/relationships with your subjects, and how do you deal with that when there’s a language barrier? What else makes that process easier?

LWH: We kind of had a policy of leaving our cameras in the car before ever talking to any of our characters. We came in as individuals just to listen to their story first and to be with them. It was often hard, because they would tell their story to me, and I would be dying because they’re being so natural and I was like “If only we had the camera.” But it was that listening and hearing and making eye contact that really helped. And then I would say “Well, would you mind telling us that same story—which is the worst story of your life about how your children were butchered, or how your husband was macheted to death in front of your eyes—again? Can you tell me that story again, but on camera?”

I hope to never do those kinds of interviews again. But listening, and being there, being human with them, and really making sure that they know that you’re on their team really helped. They knew I was there to be their voice, and not to exploit them.

Also, I found that people in the city were very jaded against people with cameras. But people in the country, in the rural areas, were much more open. So we didn’t shoot much in the city, because people would get angry. They feel like people have come, and capitalized on their genocide, like Hotel Rwanda—people kind of hate that movie. They don’t like the main character. So we had to be really careful and sensitive.

What were the most challenging parts of making this film?

LWH: The shoot itself was such a joy, and it’s funny that you spend 4 weeks shooting, and then you spent 2 or 3 years editing, building out your social outreach campaign, all of that. So I would say all of the post work has been the most challenging. On a technical level, interviewing and editing subjects that speak a very obscure language—they speak Kinyarwanda, which only people in Rwanda and Burundi speak, and so you just don’t even know where sentences begin and end. And so to cut it is incredibly difficult. We were also using two different cameras, that were two different kinds of media, so I had to be rendering all the time, and subtitling and rending, and just rendering to death. I was in render hell for months of my life.

I think editing your own material is also a big challenge. I was glad I did it. I think it needed my brain totally focused on it. But I hope in the future that I will not edit my own work again.

I also think having a vision for the future of the project was really hard for me. I was very tunnel vision the whole time, saying “OK I just need to shoot.” Then “Ok, I need to edit and finish that.” And then, “Oh I have a finished piece. Well what’s my festival strategy, what’s my outreach plan—am I going to build a website?”

I wish that I had been thinking about the future throughout the project and planning out my goals, thinking “OK, I’m going to build partnerships with these NGOs, I’m going to set all these things up such that when the film is finished I can launch into a campaign.”

I really did everything kind of the hard way. It’s been good because I’ve learned it all on my own. My next film or projects I do in the future, I’ll know so much more. I think also working alone is challenging—I had a team, a crew for shooting, but then I was alone. For all of the post-production, I was doing pretty much every part myself—producing, directing, writing, editing. Thankfully, I had great composers and a great sound design guy, but mostly I was all alone. And I think sometimes documentary filmmaking can be very lonely. You kind of feel like you’re going insane.

So what do you do when you feel like you’re going insane? And how do you keep from second-guessing yourself when you’re working on your own? 

LWH: I held impromptu focus groups at different stages of the rough cut, and especially as I started to do the fine cut. One day I had over a doctor, a mom, my friend who worked at PBS, a girl who did fashion design—just different people, and they watched the film, took notes and then they gave me really honest feedback. And some of it was so hard for me to hear, and yet critical to how the final film turned out.

You have to trust other people’s opinions. I get frustrated when filmmakers get defensive when people critique their work, because the whole goal is that your audience gets it, and that they’re pleased. And granted you have to take their advice with a grain of salt, but if 5 people are telling you that this part drags, or this is confusing, or that this isn’t as impactful as it could be, listen to them. Just throw out your pride, and literally chop the crap out of your stuff if it means that it’s going to be a better piece. I had to chop big chunks that I had worked WEEKS on, but in the end—it was so much better. I say listen to other people, humble yourself, throw out your pride, let as many people as possible watch it, and then be wise in how you incorporate their ideas. And my husband was very helpful. He was my other brain throughout it.

What were your goals for the film? What did you want it to accomplish?

LWH: I think I wanted it to accomplish the same thing that had been accomplished in my heart the first time I went to Rwanda, which was that I was challenged to my core by this question: could I forgive somebody who had killed my family? And if it’s possible for some people in Rwanda to forgive the person who brutally murdered their family, what does that mean for the rest of the world? What does that mean for me here in the US? What does that mean for people in Northern Ireland or South Africa or wherever? It causes you to think and I loved the reversal of roles, where here’s a story of Africa kind of humbling us, teaching us something that we couldn’t have done ourselves.

Two things really struck me while I was watching this film: one—what does this movie say about and to the US? What is there that we as Americans can learn watching a story of reconciliation and forgiveness? And then two: one of the women is talking about these divides that were created—these false divisions that were made up from differences between tribes, and I found watching the film that it made me think about the US at this time where we like to say there’s no racism but there very clearly is, where we are still pitted against each other in so many ways that we aren’t acknowledging, and we aren’t reconciling. What would it mean if we took this idea of reconciliation really seriously in terms of our national divisions?

LWH: Oh yeah, the implications for racial reconciliation here, in our midst, is huge. I don’t know that movement, but I would love to. I think you can look at a place like Rwanda and really see that it’s possible. It gives you tremendous hope. I have people come up to me after screenings and they just cry and say “My father abused my brother and I’ve never been able to forgive him and now I have hope that maybe I can.” Or “My dad cheated on my mom and I’ve hated him ever since, and but maybe now I can forgive.” Stories like that. I hope in people’s hearts it has that effect to some degree. But even brought more broadly, I would love to take the film and run with it.

How do you build an audience? And how do you make this film have as much impact as possible? 

LWH: Again, I certainly didn’t start out thinking we would ever have any “projects” come out of this. But since the completion of the film, we’ve had sort of three distinct campaigns or initiatives that have developed out of the film. The first is called the Living Bricks Campaign. That was born out of audience’s responses. Saying, “How can we get involved?” And I had never really thought about people getting involved. It was more of a thought piece. I just wanted to get people thinking, and but then they were asking, “How do we help people like the people in your movie? How do we participate in the reconciliation going on?” And so I ended up partnering with Prison Fellowship International, which is the organization we featured in the movie, where Saveri is building a house for Rosaria, and they live together in this village of reconciliation. So Living Bricks is our viewer action campaign to build another village of reconciliation like the one that’s in the movie. So the local government donated a piece of land adjacent to the village that’s in the movie, and we’re just asking people to donate a brick–$20—to go towards the building of a new house for a family where an ex-prisoner will build the house for them. We’ve raised enough to build about 3 houses, and we’re hoping to build 50. It’s really cool; we got to go back and visit this past summer and meet the first two families who received new homes, and it was just awesome.

So that’s one project: LivingBricksCampaign.org. And then the second campaign is the As We Forgive Rwanda Initiative. Again, born not out of my idea, but people, my Rwandan friends, saying to me “I think the film could actually be helpful here in our country. We don’t have any educational tools, we don’t have any films, we don’t have anything that’s helping facilitate reconciliation.” I started thinking that it would be great to do a premiere in Kigali, and maybe we could do a screening tour of sorts across the country, going to different villages and schools. Well, a good friend of mine, named Andrea McDaniel came with me on the planning trip in April and really just fell in love with what we were doing. She realized that she could really help us expand it, because her expertise was in building public/private partnerships between government—she worked for the State Department—and in May, she moved over there to direct the initiative—all through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Essentially the initiative has become a national program where we’re training facilitators who can guide discussions and take the film into schools, prisons—where there are still many perpetrators locked up—churches and villages. And so we’ve done a bunch of trainings for facilitators, trainings for headmasters of schools, for pastors, for all the different leaders who are involved in the reconciliation work. It’s so awesome, because Andrea has just done the most dynamic things. It’s really a public/private partnership between the Rwandan government and a bunch of the leading NGOs that do reconciliation work. And so, the idea is that we’re integrating our program into existing programs. We’re not creating our own institutions; we’re just working with the institutions that are doing it already. So it’s just been amazing. This program started in July. We had a huge premiere in July where some 5000 Rwandans came, and since then it’s been shown to probably 30,000 people with facilitated discussions afterwards. So we’re hoping to continue that work and expand it for two or three more years, if we can get the funding.

And then we have a third project that’s more of a fun campaign that we just launched this week. We’ve really wanted to create a kind of tool kit for organizations that want to host screenings. And so we’ve started something called the 4Give campaign, and we’ve built kind of a discussion guide around the 4 “gives”: give truth, give mercy, give hope and give back. We’re encouraging organizations to host screenings all over the country, and then to have discussions about the power of reconciliation in their own neighborhoods. We got musicians to donate songs, so you can get free downloads of songs that echo the themes of redemption and forgiveness, and we developed a t-shirt—lots of fun stuff.

It sounds like you’ve really run with it and come up with good ideas.

LWH: Hopefully it will make an impact. We feel like it’s really made an impact in Rwanda, and I’m hoping here that it will inspire and spark more real conversations about this topic.

What’s next for you?

LWH: This definitely takes up the vast majority of my time. There are a couple of other films that I’m sort of working on. One is about hot dog vending in Washington DC, and then there’s another one that I’m coming in on as a producer—not as a director—which is another feature doc about a warlord in Liberia, and then I’m talking with some other groups, like the Duke Center for Reconciliation about doing a project with them about African leaders for peace. I keep going back to Africa!