Shakespeare in Rwanda: the white-saviour industrial complex

And above all beware, my body and my soul too, beware of crossing your arms in the sterile attitude of the spectator, because life is not a spectacle, because a sea of sorrows is not a proscenium, because a man who screams is not a dancing bear…

– Aimé Césaire

Last July, at an independent film festival in Gisenyi, a small Rwandan town on the shores of Lake Kivu, there came a moment mid-way through Rwanda and Juliet, which premiered in Australia on the ABC recently, that made the mzungus in the audience wince and shift uncomfortably in their seats. The film follows Andrew Garrod, Professor Emeritus of Education at Dartmouth College, on his 2014 trip to Rwanda to put on a production of Romeo and Juliet. He believes in the healing power of art, and that he – and the production, more generally – can help facilitate reconciliation, twenty years after the genocide that left over one million people dead. The leading roles, he declares early in the documentary, will be played by a Hutu and Tutsi. Having once again shared this vision with the amateur players, the actress playing Juliet, Tété, confronts him about his interpretation of the play and attitudes towards reconciliation:

Tété: For the moment, in Rwanda, we do not need reconciliation. We already have it.

Professor Garrod: But you have it in name, do you have it in fact?

Tété: In action, we have it in action.

Professor Garrod: I don’t think you do, not from my reading. I’ve read an enormous amount in order to prepare myself.

So it is that the director, despite only being in the country a few months, knows Rwanda and its people better than they know themselves. It is – unintentionally, I suspect – the defining scene of the film.

Like so many other well-meaning white people, Professor Garrod’s motives in going to Rwanda are ostensibly good. Having lost the sense of meaning and purpose he once derived from his Ivy League professorship, he decides to go to Africa to ‘make a difference’. The film charts the months of rehearsals and, over time, his altruistic veneer slips. Just under the surface, a mindset that’s essentially that of the early colonialist – namely the missionary – begins to emerge. It wasn’t that long ago that Europeans, filled with religious zeal, flocked to Africa to ‘civilise’ the natives. Professor Garrod has come to do the same.

Suffering from a case of bardolatory so severe that it makes Harold Bloom look like a hypochondriac, Professor Garrod comes to the ‘dark continent’ – so often depicted as a place of violence, war and disease – preaching the Word of his secular god, Shakespeare, in the hope of revealing His true power to the uncultured Rwandans. All they have to do is acknowledge his superiority and follow his direction.

He doesn’t seem to think twice about the complicated morality of putting on such a production and the documentary, in framing it as his story, isn’t reflective about it enough, either. Instead, there are long interviews with him about his career and his love of Shakespeare. We see Garrod packing and, just before setting off, wrestling with a ludicrously large fold-out map of the world only to reveal that – shock horror! – Rwanda is a tiny land-locked country in the middle of Africa. Once there, he remains the film’s protagonist: his hopes, concerns and sacrifices (all of which, it should be said, are genuine) are given centre stage. This is an odd decision given the stories of suffering and survival that every Rwandan in the production has. The most moving scene of the film comes when Tété visits the site of her of family’s murder and recounts that she was raped and her family slaughtered, by cousins of the actor playing Romeo. The trauma is unfathomable. The filmmakers manage to capture a moment of real vulnerability and humanity, but these are few and far between.

Art can, undoubtedly, illuminate that which seems incomprehensible; it can provide hope and reassurance when nothing else can. There’s talk of the production wanting to do this, but by ending the film with a few shots of the opening night’s performance, there is no post-production reflection and thus, no indication that the staging achieved what it set out to.

Moreover, unrequited love between two people from feuding families is not genocide. The lovers’ suicide pact doesn’t bring the families together. There is no reconciliation; just senseless death. Mercutio dies, Tybalt dies, Lady Montague dies, Count Paris dies, and finally, Romeo and Juliet die. And for what? As a play, the for-what doesn’t matter: the sentimentalist who gushes at the ‘star-cross’d lovers’’ commitment to be together, if not in life then in death, is free to do so without having to think too critically about the suffering that they leave in their wake. But make the play about the Rwandan genocide, and it loses all sentimentality; those deaths aren’t incidental to the love story. They are the story.

Problematic though it is, it would nevertheless be interesting to see a Rwandan Romeo and Juliet – not just a production with a Rwandan cast. And herein lies the absurdity of the whole project. This is a white man’s interpretation of a tragedy he knows very little about, and which he has no first-hand experience of. There’s something exploitative about Garrod’s willingness to use this as inspiration for his art. The fact that he is completely oblivious to the dubious morality of it makes it more sinister.

In wake of the Kony 2012 viral video, Teju Cole penned a brilliant essay for The Atlantic on what he termed ‘the white-savior industrial complex’. He wrote:

From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of ‘making a difference.’

Well-meaning white people like Professor Garrod would likely take offence at such a suggestion: they’ve always seen themselves as the good guys. They’re not, after all, overtly intolerant or racist. But it’s patently clear to those who see their continent invaded by white do-gooders stealing jobs from locals and lecturing people on growth and development, all under the guise of humanitarianism, that these people are indeed part of the problem. At the screening in Gisenyi, there were audible cheers and clapping from the mostly Rwandan audience when Tété, fed up with the way the production is progressing, angrily told the interviewer, ‘Whenever you leave here and go back to America or Canada, tell your white people or white friends or whoever not to come back to Rwanda talking about reconciliation. We don’t need it anymore.’

The film is meant to be about one American man’s quest to travel to a place few westerners would ever think of venturing to help a people he doesn’t know recover from one of the worst tragedies in recent memory. It’s meant to be about the remedial power of poetry and theatre – it won a host of awards from various film festivals for exploring those themes. Instead, it’s a film about something far more profound and far more consequential. It’s a film about race and how it continues to shape our attitudes towards the Other, even when we’re insistent that it doesn’t.


Image: ‘Tragedy & Comedy

Tim Robertson

Tim Roberson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12.

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