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Justice in the Grass
Joanita Mukarusanga (Photo courtesy of Choice, Inc.)

Justice in the Grass

A documentary about the Rwandan genocide to be screened at UCLA on Wednesday looks at efforts to revive a traditional court system that brings victim and perpetrator face to face.

Angilee Shah Email AngileeShah

A public screening of the documentary and a discussion session with the film's writer and director will be held in 190 Royce Hall at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, February 7, 2007.

Joanita Mukarusanga believes that her neighbor, Anastese Butero, killed her husband and children during Rwanda's 100-day genocide in 1994. Butero says he was part of a Hutu death squad that targeted and killed Tutsis, but denies ever killing anyone himself.

Mukarusanga and Butero live in a village called Mugera, in the north of Rwanda, a small community still haunted by memories of terrible violence. In the Tall Grass follows their stories and explores how people in communities like theirs have revived a traditional court system called gacaca to find answers and, conceivably, reconciliation.

A public screening of the hour-long documentary and a discussion session with the film's writer and director, J. Coll Metcalfe, will be held at UCLA next week. The free event, sponsored by the UCLA African Studies Center and Choices, Inc., the film's distributor, will be held in 190 Royce Hall at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, February 7, 2007.

"Films like this provide a counterpoint to more mainstream projects like Hotel Rwanda," says Amy Marczewski, a PhD student in the French and Francophone Studies Department at UCLA who studies literary traditions since the genocide. Marczewsi does not want UCLA students' interest in Rwanda to fade with the memory of that successful film. She will introduce In the Tall Grass on Wednesday night and hopes that those who attend the screening will gain a greater understanding of Rwandans' struggles to cope with their recent past.

The story that will be presented is at once expansive and up-close. Winner of the Stanford Award for Best Cinematography at the 2006 United Nations Association Film Festival, In the Tall Grass tells a story about how two people, their village, and their country begin a dialogue about unspeakable crimes. Metcalfe, formerly an Africa correspondent for Intenews Network, National Public Radio, the Associated Press, and Reuters, says the film touches on universal questions of justice -- what ends do justice systems serve and how can they best serve the communities that use them?

"You look at the scholarship on Rwanda and a lot of it tends to be about the genocide," Metcalfe says. But he was interested in how Rwandans are faring now. The genocide left what Metcalfe calls "horrible demographics," where surviving Tutsis live amongst Hutus and need a lot of courage to speak out.

The people who killed as many as 1,000,000 Rwandans in 1994 were not soldiers or politicians or organized militia. They were ordinary people who are hard to track down and prosecute in a systematic way.

Gacaca means "justice in the grass." It is a modern incarnation of an old idea in which citizens are judges, witnesses, plaintiffs, and defendants. It is a source of both hope and apprehension for the people of Mugera, and the only chance many victims will have to speak about the genocide. Mukarusanga is looking for a confession and an apology, and this is where In the Tall Grass begins.

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