Context & Background
I first visited Rwanda as a PhD student in 2008. I went around the country with the Rwanda Film Festival team’s inflatable screen, showing movies in villages, stadiums, bus stations and market places. One of the most vivid memories from that trip is a visit to the small, dark room of photographs of genocide victims in the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
It’s hard to talk about memory in Rwanda without resorting to clichés and platitudes. Perhaps more so than in most places, memory is a complicated thing here. It’s painful. It’s horrid. It’s important. And often it’s political and increasingly politicised.
At a very basic level, what I wanted to do with The Faces We Lost was to show Rwandans as consumers – not merely as subjects – of images. So many people around the world know the genocide visually through photographs of anonymous refugees, mutilated bodies, rows of skulls. Others have encountered the slaughter through blockbuster films such as Hotel Rwanda or Shooting Dogs, or documentaries that focus on the historical background to what and why happened in 1994. I wanted to do something different, and show that Rwandans remember too – in many complicated ways.
Accessing the topic through photographs wasn’t an obvious choice. Traditionally, many Rwandans remember and commemorate their dead through words, songs and poetry, not through images. Photography wasn’t a big thing before 1994. Even after the genocide, many people did not want to look at (or for) the pictures of their perished loved ones. But as time went by, surviving family members started seeking out these images.
The ways of finding the photographs are fascinating and heartbreaking. Not that many images existed in the first place and then so many were destroyed. This is one of the reasons why multiple photos we see in the film are from big family occasions like weddings and baptisms. Not only were these events more likely to be photographed but also they had a bigger chance of survival in someone else’s family album. The desire to have the photographs of genocide victims has also resulted in some shifting and doubling up of their initial functions. For example, many of the images have been taken from I.D. cards. Back in 1994, the cards stated the holder’s ethnicity and could be a passport to life or death. Now, they are used to remember, love and commemorate. The same image – such completely different functions and outcomes.
I had some formal red lines for The Faces We Lost. The lack of external “expert” narration that would “explain” the different experiences was one of them. The Faces We Lost was always going to be a film in which people told their own stories, in the language of their choice. It was also important to show the different facets of people’s relationship to “genocide” photographs. This is why the people in the film could be divided into those who are professionally connected to memory-making in Rwanda (through their work at the Kigali Genocide Memorial or the Rwanda Genocide Archive) and those who are not. This division is slightly false as Claver, Aline, Serge and Paul, even though professionally involved with the images, have all, to varying degrees, experienced the personal loss that came with the genocide. At the same time, there’s no doubt that Mama Lambert, Adeline, Oliva, Claudine and Cecile talk about their images from a slightly different place: one not marked by professional debates about memory-making. I suppose what I really wanted to show is how these photographs operate slightly differently in the sterile and curated space of the Archive and the Memorial and the intimacy of the home, where they are touched, leafed through, re-ordered.
Two things returned time and again in my conversations about photographs with people in Rwanda. First was their ability to signify life as well as death. This is something that professional photography – concerned primarily with the documentation of suffering, violence and injury – often struggles to do. Second was the ambition to use these photographs to make sure that the genocide victims are remembered as individuals rather than just a number. The latter especially is a tall order, particularly when we’re talking about strangers rather than family members or friends looking at the pictures. But I think it’s a worthy ambition.
The Faces We Lost also engages with the way the existence of these photographs is beginning to change due to technology. For many years, they were primarily physical objects. Now, they often live as digital copies – nesting on people’s phones (like Adeline’s) or social media accounts. This is part of a bigger, global trend, which, I believe will alter the long-established relationship between photography and memory.
The Faces We Lost is just one element of a larger project, kindly funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust and Brunel University London. The project’s called ‘Personal archives of trauma and violence. Image and memory in the digital age – Argentina and Rwanda.’ It investigates the memorial and commemorative use of non-professional, private images (of genocide victims in Rwanda and of the Disappeared in Argentina).
This film has been many years in preparation but, really, was only made possible by the fact that so many people have agreed to share their stories and experiences (on and off screen). I am very thankful to them for this.
Piotr Cieplak, 2017