In early 2010, Finnish filmmaker, Iris Olsson, got a call from CPH:DOX, inviting her to a workshop where she would be paired with a director to make a film. Still a student pursuing her Master's at the Finnish national film school in Helsinki, Olsson is already an award-winning filmmaker (Summer Child, Between Dreams.) For CPH's program, she was partnered with a young Rwandan director, Yves Niyongabo. Once she arrived in Rwanda, she realized there was a bigger story to tell.
Burden of My Heart is a portrait of the people left in the country, an empty, shattered place filled with the ghosts of murdered Tutsis sixteen years after genocide. We have vague memories of this sixteen years on, don't we? Under the orders of insane leaders, members of the Hutu tribe began killing people on 15 April 1994. A mere 100 days later, 800,000 people were dead, and many of those who survived the slaughter fled in a mass exodus from the country of their birth, never to return. We remember this, don't we?
Olsson, who shot the film herself, takes us through Rwanda in a stunning visual articulation of the unending grief and persistent remembrance of the few individuals who managed to survive and hang on, deciding to stay and live out the rest of their lives in daily vigil over both the physical and spiritual remains of their murdered families. Without any exposition, with contemplative photography, Olsson and Niyongabo imbue their 45-minute piece with plenty of breathing space, allowing both participants and viewers to take in the internal experience of despair, the feeling of complete existential failure, the ways in which someone can struggle to find the words to express the absurdity of living a corporeal life when your spirit has already passed on, accompanying your loved ones into nothingness.
There is balance here, as much as there can be, for Olsson and Niyongabo show us that, on the one hand, this grisly experience is so overwhelming that forgiveness is impossible. But on the other side of this can be a deeply penetrating and profound experience of spiritual joy, serenity and peace of mind that can derive from faith, and the awareness of a presence that some have chosen to call God.
A young man can speak eloquently of shattered faith and express understanding that his generation might be relieved of the obligation of forgiveness. He acknowledges the loss of the "best part of himself," his ability to feel anything at all. "I'm really sure there is a part of me that's dead; there is a kind of emotion, a kind of love, I don't have." The only hope he holds out is that of a new generation, that will know only of this time through passed-on stories. This is the only thing that keeps him alive. He acknowledges that the next generation will have a chance to be born into a world where the entire spectrum of human feeling can remain active and intact. His experience will be an historical one, repeated in rote recitation as part of a school lesson on genocide, like multiplication tables, or a poem, or a song.
We meet the constant mourners who have an open dialogue with God and shout not only their grief to that entity, but also their joy and gratitude at being alive. There is the young mother of three young children, who had her legs cut off during the massacre, who has turned to the church for some solace so that she doesn't burden her children too much with her overwhelming grief.
The burden of grief might be bearing witness long after everyone else has moved on, when just the "reconciliators" are left to try and mend some things. Most of the world barely paid attention to what happened in Rwanda in 1994 until hundreds of thousands were already dead. Olsson and Niyongabo capture a respectful portrait of those that remain. They listen; they record; they bear witness. In that process, the two have created something all the more emotionally searing for its distance, its economy, its quiet observation. (Niyongabo and Olsson, pictured)
Burden of My Heart will have its premiere this Thursday evening at the 54th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film as part of the International Young Talent Competition--Generation DOK program.