To create his film Rwanda and Juliet, Canadian filmmaker Ben Proudfoot traveled to Kigali with a movie crew and a plan. There, they followed Andrew Garrod, a former Dartmouth College professor and the co-founder of a decades-old group called Youth Bridge Global that mounts Shakespeare productions in hopes of inspiring youthful enlightenment and hatchet-burying.
Garrod had previously staged the Bard in Bosnia, Croatia, and the Marshall Islands; Proudfoot’s documentary stalks the creation of his latest, an eight-week-long Rwandan production of Romeo and Juliet, more than 20 years after the East African country’s infamous genocide. We watch the casting process (Garrod rather obviously announces that he will cast a Romeo and Juliet from different backgrounds), the temperamental rehearsals, and finally the performances of the teenaged Hutus and Tutsis, trying to detangle iambic pentameter and make relevant a story most of us grew up with and that these kids are only now discovering.
Western audiences will no doubt be stunned by Rwanda’s lush beauty, and — if we’re paying attention — how very little we know about this beleaguered country. We’re also made to see that, while there are lines to be drawn between Rwandan plights and those of the Capulets and Montagues, the two stories are not paralleled. Genocide and family feuding are not the same thing. But they do, as Proudfoot’s film shows us, have things in common. Namely, the notion of love overcoming violent oppression.
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Cinematographer David Bolen lingers on the sublime (verdant landscape and aquamarine water so gorgeous, they appear to be stylized or somehow staged) and the ridiculous (Garrod packing his bags, and borrowing a map from a local bookstore), all of which provides a sleepy contrast to the talking-head interviews with teenage Rwandans who surprise us with their frankness.
“Rwandans are hypocrites,” one girl explains. “Even if we hate one another, we keep it inside.” Another girl, cast as Juliet, is even more bold: “We're not totally reconciled, and anybody who says we are is a hypocrite."
If there’s a certain unintentional humor in hearing Romeo’s “What light through yonder window breaks …” speech spoken in Rwandan accents, the scenes depicting rumbles between warring Bardian hoods are flat out shocking. All of this is, of course, tied up in a rosy post-curtain-call bow that’s as genuine as a badly played Mercutio, yet Proudfoot’s point remains well made: We can overcome our differences with love and understanding. And the occasional asp.