Why Black Earth Rising? Why that title to the series? The earth in Rwanda is distinctively red. During production, the series had an alternative title – The Forgiving Earth, suggesting that Black Earth Rising is about salvation and redemption through unpacking the past and forgiving “the other” to create a strong and thriving nation. I give almost nothing away to let readers know that the reconciliation of the two sisters, the current authoritarian President of Rwanda, Bibi Mundanzi and a former general in the RPF, a hero in the rescue of her people, Alice Munezero, ends the series. However, that thread is a minor and mostly symbolic sub-plot, inserted artificially because of the themes the writer/director wants to underline. But why Black Earth Rising?
The romantic and idealistic theme is clear. People should move beyond their past sectarian violent conflict through reconciliation and respect for the other. How to do that? Unpack the repressed memories. Dig up the mass graves. Except there is only the slightest hint of mass graves in the whole series. Instead, the focus is not on the group, but on the individual. Further, it is in the individual for whom the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi, between a British and Rwandan identity, will be buried in order to participate in the resurrection. It is a message of a new globalized identity rooted in human rights that will allow age-old animosities to be interred.
As if the animosities were really and deeply about ethnicities! Humans can find any Other to target – to define as Other, to define as wholly Other, to define as an inferior Other, to define as a threatening Other, to define as a threatening Other who must be quarantined and exiled, to define as a threatening Other from whom security can be gained only through extermination. In watching the series, you do not see the downward spiral. Only the plotted recovery of the cast by the removal of mysterious unknowns.
But the problem is not about what is unknown. For all along, the challenge was that we ignored what we already knew to allow either hope or hatred to blind us to the reality unfolding before us. Whether idealistic or brutalist, the source of the conundrum is not in the weakening of our eyes or in the connection of our brains to processing what we see, but in the blinkers we choose to wear. Hatred and hope, hope and hatred, are merely reasons for mindblindness, not causes. The dream of transforming the colour of the red earth of Rwanda into rich black earth that will allow richness to emerge – material richness, cultural richness, moral richness – is simply a fraud. And however, exciting the drama that unfolds through the plot, the resurrection emerges as a deus ex machina, an artificially imposed solution on a horribly painful part of all our history that rings false.
How did that happen? How could the brilliance of a volcanic Michaela Coel playing Kate Ashby and John Goodman – his real name so appropriate to the false idealism underpinning the series – playing the cynical, world-weary but rights driven international human rights lawyer, Michael Ennis, end up resulting in the feeling that one has been cheated, that the deck has been stacked, that the dice have been loaded? I believe that the use of the genre of a thriller, while entrancing and keeping us mesmerized, also keeps the viewer blinded. We are literally blindsided by the inadequacy of the simplistic and misleading result to the absolute horror of the evil and atrocious bloodiness of the genocide.
Let me provide some real grounding, and not in a black earth totally absent from Rwanda. The series is basically about the ability of legal systems of justice to bring mass murderers their just deserts. But just look at the phrase – “just deserts” – as if the solution to blood and gore on a massive scale is an energy bar, as if justice were just the sweet ending to a delicious meal. In reality, it is a desert, an arid plain or a rocky and craggy Sinai out of which only morals can be handed down from on high as simplistic formulas. John Goodman can play the role of a jocular salesman of the new international human rights regime in the name of which we have watched a new form of lies and injustice roll out in front of us.
Atrocities are not excavated; they are buried deeper under pap. Sometimes it is the pap of providing John Goodman with a silent prop to show what a caring and committed individual he is under his cynical idealistic blather – that is, a wife in a coma of frozen silence. The viewer has to know it is pap because we do not feel the pain of John Goodman’s loss. We never feel that Michael Ennis hurts, hurts so deeply that he needs to cover that pain up with comic asides and witty banter.
What about wonder woman, whether on her daily runs or swimming vigorously in a pool? Michaela Cole is certainly an intriguing presence. But in the end, what we have watched is a marvel comic character dressed in the costume of a genocide survivor. It is the absence that pains me deeply, not what is present before me. And the contradictions! Instead of showing the drama of the interaction of thought and feeling, her brilliance as an investigator is used simply as a foil for her periodic emotional breakdowns. The two states play off one another without either throwing much light on the other.
While watching brilliant performances trapped in a convoluted plot of various threads that never come together to knit a sweater, and while our attention is kept by hints and reveals that end up as disguises and cover-ups, I ended up feeling used and abused. But not just me. History most of all. The Rwandan genocide was a horror show of world historical importance. Like the holocaust, it demands immersion, demands at the very least vicarious pain, demands our attention to reality. The device of the drama entailed in the pursuit of one’s personal identity falls so short of the immensity of the evil that instead of experiencing at least some cathartic relief, I felt as if I had been served terrible Chinese fast syrupy sweet and sour chicken with overcooked beans and undercooked rice in a commercial food court.
The Rwandan genocide was visceral. The Rwandan genocide cannot be captured by a zombie horror movie even with the best of actors and the highest production quality. And justice was never done, most of all, not by the international criminal court. The series suggests that the ICC is the only way to go to obtain justice. French justice was just an effort to cover up French complicity. Rwandan justice was really an exercise in revenge. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha trying the genocidaires offered the template for a solution.
However, nothing can be further from the truth. The suggestion that the West can make up for its total irresponsibility by not intervening when it easily could to stop the genocide in its tracks by afterwards creating a system of international justice that is detached, that is purportedly fair and that follows all the rules of a liberal system, is just so much hogwash.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha that tried the leading perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide lasted 21 years. The result – 61 convictions. Yes, 61, Yes, just 61. 93 individuals were tried. The trials cost US$2 billion dollars, or just about $330 million per conviction – $330,000,000. That is the total value of the GDP for the Philippines.
True, Jean-Paul Akayesu was convicted of nine counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. He had been charged with 15 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity – that included rape. He was a former Hutu mayor of Taba in Gitarama prefecture in the year prior to and ending with the termination of the genocide. He was a former teacher and school inspector and considered fairly intelligent. But he was not simply a passive bystander, but personally engaged in the supervision of murdering Tutsi. He provided the lists to the militias who went house-to-house searching out victims.
The ruling is important in the history of international law. He was not found guilty of breaches of the Geneva Convention concerning war crimes, but was found guilty in accordance with the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This was unprecedented and offered an historical landmark. However, this significance in meting out international human rights justice is ignored in the series.
Former Rwandan Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, a banker in his earlier life who was sworn into office when President Juvénal Habyarimana was killed in a plane crash and Prime Minster Agathe Unwillinglyimana was assassinated, was convicted. He was the first ever head of state to be tried by an international criminal court is the name of ending immunity for the powerful. He pled guilty. But the trials of the mass murderers after World War II had already established that principle, and at immensely less cost. And with far greater public education – for after all, these were show trials, but of victors.
The Eichmann trial by an Israeli court was a show trial, but hardly a victor’s trial when six million Jews had been murdered. But it was even a greater show trial to demonstrate that Jews could no longer be killed with impunity. The trial initiated the awakening of historical consciousness and an historical conscience of the evils of the Holocaust fifteen years after WWII had ended – a result that Hannah Arendt not only ignored, but implicitly deplored. Show trials raise the level of awareness. They introduce us to the horrors committed. But there is no evidence they serve as a deterrent. The ICTR’s president, Danish Judge Vagn Joensen, opined that the convictions served as “powerful deterrents to those committing similar crimes in the future”.
Nonsense! Absolute nonsense. Nonsense without a scrap of evidence to support such a conviction about the effects of convictions on the global scale. Contrast the results with those of the Rwandan gacaca courts (“justice among the grass” rather than from the black earth) that tried over 130,000 and meted out not only justice but a foundation for reconciliation. While far from perfect to say the least, while sometimes the courts were used for vengeance rather than justice, while the court was sometimes abused by providing opportunists an excuse to seize property, these local communities processed over 100,000 convictions. However. Like the ICTR, the Rwandan courts failed to communicate that any understanding was gained about the cause of genocide at a deeper level. If I were to weigh the ICTR against the Rwandan court system, with all of its enormous flaws, the latter would win hands down, the exact opposite message of Black Earth Rising.
But the most serious injustice of the series concerned the implicit suggestion that the post-genocide crimes in the Congo by Tutsi “rogues” – the series at least did not trace them back to the Rwandan government – were equivalent to the crimes committed by the genocidaire in Rwanda. This is just a great historical lie. The claim is often made that over 600,000 Hutu were killed mercilessly by Tutsi in the Congo, more or less balancing the 800,000 murdered in the genocide. But this ignores a number of facts.
The 600,000 figure came about because the number of Hutu refugees remaining in Congo after the 1996 return was an illusion, a grossly exaggerated figure based on totally false counts of the number of Hutu refugees living in camps in the Congo. Certainly, atrocities were committed against those Hutus. Perhaps as many as 60,000 innocent civilians were murdered in crimes against humanity. But the murders were not part of a genocidal effort.
Certainly, more died in the Congo compared to Rwanda, about twice the number. Not over 10 weeks but over 10 or more years. They were casualties of disease, of hunger and of atrocities, casualties in the midst of war rather than results of intentional mass murder with the goal of absolutely exterminating the Other. There is no comparison and no balance by setting the two situations side by side. In my conviction, this was the greatest atrocity committed by the series.
Thus, whatever the power of the series, in fact, precisely because of its power, the reprehensible falsification of history and ethical distortions emerge as an abomination rather than some form of revelation that contributes to reconciliation.
Pain must be felt and expressed and not buried deep under moral claptrap and technical wizardry.