God Sleeps in Rwanda

Two young female filmmakers, Kimberlee Acquaro and director Stacy Sherman, have made a deeply stirring film entitled God Sleeps in Rwanda. It is narrated by Rosario Dawson (Sin City; Rent) and nominated for an Academy Award in the category of short documentary.

Only twenty-eight minutes long, God Sleeps tells the stories of five women survivors of the Rwandan genocide of 1994; four are interviewed and one tells about her friend who is dying of AIDS. In those 100 days a million people were killed in Rwanda.

Severa Mukakinani saw her seven children killed in front of her and then was gang raped by so many men that she lost count. Afterward she was cut by a machete and thrown in a river. She does not know how she survived, she says softly. A month later, she discovered she was pregnant and wanted to end it. The women with whom she is hiding counsel her not to. When the child is born, Severa wanted to hate her – until the baby smiled at her. She named her Akimana, “child of God”. Ten years later Severa says, “I never want her to think she belongs to those militia men. She belongs to me.”

Fifi Mukabgoga could not speak for herself. She was dying of AIDS/HIV, as are many Rwandan women and children even today. Filmmaker Acquaro told an Amnesty International audience recently that it is through AIDS/HIV that the genocide continues. “People continue to die because of the virus transmitted by all the systematic rapes used as a tool of war in the genocide; because of this for the first time in history rape has been determined to be a crime against humanity.”

The filmmakers took five years to make this film, with a team of four: Acquaro and Sherman, Nora Bagarinka, their translator who worked with the International Rescue Committee for the survivors of the genocide, and Craig Tanner, who edited the film. Ms. Acquaro explained that they shot the documentary with broadcast quality digital cameras, without a crew. In this way they could do the filming themselves and not frighten or intrude upon the women. To this day the culture of Rwanda looks down on a woman who was raped, so these experiences are not spoken of in public. 250,000 women were raped during the genocide.

God Sleeps in Rwanda is a powerful and gentle film that begins with the most traumatic stories and ends each one with the women speaking about recovery and rebuilding. The women’s voices reflect a beauty that radiates strength to live, not just survive the hardship of everyday life. Another woman, now a police investigator and law student who got AIDS from her husband, says quietly at the end of her story that, “I am not so wonderful,” but this is not true; she is. The faces of the women are illuminated by forgiveness and love for one another and the children: orphans, nieces and nephews, and the children of rape. These are women who fled the horror and came back to begin anew.

The necessity to contribute to the rebuilding of Rwanda is largely left to the women, who make up 70% of the adult population. Josephine Mujawamariya, for example, was elected to be a civil leader in her village with only an elementary education. She was in charge of a road building project carried out mostly by women, something that before the genocide would never have happened because the roles of men and women were so culturally defined.

Two of the women spoke of the comfort they receive from prayer, even though Catholic nuns and priests took part in the genocide. In 1994, two Benedictine nuns were convicted and sentenced in Belgium (where they had fled after the genocide) for directly contributing to the deaths of many people.
Rwanda still needs the world’s help. This week the Vatican announced it was donating almost half a million dollars to Rwanda because of a growing food shortage due to drought. And the need for money for antiretroviral drugs continues to this day in Rwanda and throughout Africa. Also, killings sporadically continue to prevent witnesses from testifying in war trials that continue.

A member of the audience at the screening asked Ms. Bagarinka (now a nursing student in the U.S.) how they could forgive their family and friends who helped with the killings. She said, “If your neighbor asks forgiveness, how do you say no? We forgive so this will not happen again.”

The title of the film comes from a Rwandan saying, “When God wanders the world, at the end of the day he comes to Rwanda to sleep because He considers this to be the most beautiful place on earth.” Thanks to many women like those featured in this documentary, and the filmmakers, God must certainly feel at home once again.


A white woman, Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), works at a child care center in the projects of a New Jersey city where its large African American population lives. One night, she walks into the hospital with her hands bloodied and reports that her car has been stolen near the projects. Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) gets the job and he senses something is not right. Brenda finally admits that she had gone back to work to get something and that her son was in the car.  The carjacking was bad enough; the kidnapping implicates the blacks who knew and liked her.

Is Brenda telling the truth? Enter Danny Martin (Ron Eldard), Brenda’s brother and a cop in the police department the next town over; he demands and then insists he will find the ones to blame. Enter Karen Collucci (Edie Falco) and her team of amateur sleuths who have had success tracking down missing children; Det. Council turns them down only to ask for their help later.

The projects erupt because the people are implicated in the kidnapping without evidence. The police departments of the two towns are in conflict because they are both searching for criminals in the projects and both claiming jurisdiction.

Det. Council gets Brenda alone and tries to use religion on her to convince her to tell the truth. But it is Collucci who gets her to the broken-down and abandoned old children’s home, Freedomland, and to a confession. Sort of.

Freedomland, directed by Joe Roth (Christmas with the Kranks), and written by Richard Price (based on his 1999 novel of the same title), suffers from a huge identity crisis mixed with cinematic schizophrenia. At no time does this film know what it is or what it’s trying to say. Oh, it talks a lot, but the point is elusive. Both Moore and Jackson deliver soliloquies; hers are ravings, and his are sermons.

I liked the Samuel L. Jackson character, and I think if the story had belonged to him instead of splitting off into those of the mother and child, the group of mothers searching for lost kids, the policeman brother who came and went – just went, and the artificial race problems, we would have seen a man who had a great heart, too sensitive for the darkness of human nature that engulfed him. Instead, we got these odd religious homilies, as if someone had ghosted the script to make it somehow Christian.

The key actors’ performances did not mesh well; taken separately, Council, Collucci, and even Martin were strong. Together, they were … odd. And whatever happened to Danny Martin, Brenda’s hot-headed and judgmental brother? He just … evaporates. The only story-line that makes any sense is that of Det. Council, and then only barely.

“Freedomland” was obviously a metaphor for some unknown point of the story. I am sorry the threads of the narrative didn’t come together enough to make it a mystery thriller, a study of human weakness and greatness. In the last analysis, Freedomland is an attempt that falls short of its great potential.