Communication Currents

People meeting for reconciliation and rehumanization

Post-Rwandan Genocide Documentary Depicts Reconciliation and Hope

August 1, 2016
Intercultural Communication

From April to July 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority in Rwanda killed an estimated 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi ethnic minority, in a genocide that lasted 100 days. The genocide left a permanent mark on the history of Rwanda.

Twenty-two years later, the process of reconciliation in Rwanda continues. Patrick Mureithi’s documentary ICYIZERE: hope chronicles this reconciliation and rehumanization process during a workshop conducted by Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC), a grassroots organization that focuses on communities suffering from trauma in Rwanda and other conflicted regions.

Eric Aoki of Colorado State University and Kyle M. Jonas of Vanderbilt University assessed ICYIZERE: hope. “As two individuals interested in the human condition, we were overwhelmed with how the individuals in the documentary worked through their trauma and rebuilt relationships with the very individuals who brutally killed their family and friends,” explain Aoki and Jonas.

In their analysis, they argue that the post-genocide workshop depicted in the film produces a reconciliatory space created through negotiations of dialectical tensions between past and present as well as individual and collective memory, and through representations of rehumanization within the workshop, where participants and viewers can reinterpret those who are seen as “Other.” Aoki and Jonas look at the reconciliation and rehumanization process through the lens of identity-widening theory, which is defined by Donald G. Ellis as “the act of extending and enlarging one’s identity so that it includes more groups, people, and ideas.” Identity-widening can be thought of as redrawing “us versus them” boundaries to establish a more common identity. 

ReconciliationIn their essay, the authors emphasize that reconciliation is not a single act of restoration, but a communicative and relational process that requires people to reinterpret the conflicting relationship. People in the process of reconciliation work to build a relational future that is not defined solely by the past. The authors contend that inICYIZERE: hope, the phenomenon of reconciliation is influenced by several external factors such as identity-widening and forgiveness. In the film, the participants of the HROC workshop and the viewers participate in a controlled communication process in which two groups in conflict can be redefined as one group.

Rehumanization. In ICYIZERE, reconciliation between individuals of the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups is dependent on participants’ ability to rehumanize one another. Rehumanization is a process by which people reimagine a previously devalued individual as uniquely human again. Both perpetrator and victim must engage in the process, which may pose difficulties because perpetrators often put up emotional walls to distance themselves from victims to avoid guilt. Victims can also experience difficulty rehumanizing a perpetrator when they do not see that perpetrator experiencing deep regret and remorse.

 ICYIZERE: hope Opens Doors, Widens Identities 

Aoki and Jonas analyze how HROC participant discourse and interaction in ICYIZERE work to rehumanize victims and perpetrators within the reconciliation process. They examine two forms of discourse: participant language, which reveals how people compare and construct new realities through their discourse with Others, and the documentary as discourse, which is both informative and persuasive. It is informative because it presents the reality and facts of the Rwandan genocide and persuasive because the film is still a “(re)presentation.” For example, camera angles, edits, music, and framing can send the message that forgiveness is powerful. Both types of discourse work in tandem to show how HROC participants work toward reconciliation.

In the workshop, facilitators help to widen identities by allowing people to work toward national goals despite differences. The genocide is reinterpreted as having affected everyone, and both survivors and perpetrators are taught to identify as Rwandan instead of Hutu or Tutsi. Throughout the film, the facilitator employs inclusive language not directed toward a particular group. Toward the end of the film, it is evident that workshop participants begin to adopt this language themselves. One participant says: “In the rain, a fool thinks he is wetter than others. The genocide has affectedeveryone.”

Another level of identity-widening occurs when both perpetrators and survivors express fear. One perpetrator expresses the fear he felt after being released from prison: “I killed his own, now I am in front of him! He can kill me!” Another male survivor shares that “much trauma is caused by witnessing death and meeting a killer on the street.” Both survivors and perpetrators express fear in post-genocidal encounters of the Other, a shared vulnerability that can help each side to relate to the Other.

In addition, identity-widening can occur when perpetrators and survivors perceive that they share the same values. For example, when perpetrators express remorse over their actions and label them as immoral, they are making similar judgments shared by the survivors.

Conclusion and Implications 

The workshop allowed participants to laugh and cry together and served to rehumanize the “Other.” It brought people into the process of reconciliation by helping both survivors and perpetrators to widen their identities.

The workshop documentary shows that the genocide remains in the hearts and minds of many and will continue to affect generations of Rwandans. . Aoki and Jonas argue that films such as ICYIZERE: hope can provide scholars and facilitators with insight into collective coping processes and memory engagements after an atrocity such as the Rwandan genocide.

About the author (s)

Eric Aoki

Colorado State University


Kyle M. Jonas

Vanderbilt University