LFF 2017: Birds Are Singing in Kigali Review
More on BFI London Film Festival 2017
Birds Are Singing in Kigali, from Polish writer-directors Krzysztof Krauze and Joanna Kos-Krauze, looks back at the Rwandan genocide of 1994. It sadly proved to be Krzysztof's last film as he passed away mid-production three years ago and Joanna somehow still managed to complete the film. The existential history of their own country and time spent living in Africa brought them to this story of a Polish ornithologist and a Rwandan refugee. As despairing as the humanity in this drama can be in places there is still room for hope and belief in our willingness to do the right thing when needed.
Anna (Jowita Budnik) had been studying vultures in Rwanda before fleeing the country as the Hutu extremists begin to massacre Tutsi. She smuggles the daughter of a dead colleague out of the country, although upon arrival in Poland, Claudine (Eliane Umuhire), opts to stay in a refugee centre instead of with Anna. Shortly after being granted political asylum she finally moves into Anna's home, but their struggle to reckon with the atrocities they witnessed makes cohabitation difficult for them both. Claudia finds it hard to settle in Poland and they both return to Rwanda, facing up to a past that has haunted them ever since they left.
Anna and Claudine's contentious relationship remains at the heart of a film that also examines immigration, racism, PTSD and the extremities of human behaviour. Their presence in each other's lives serves as a constant reminder of the dark memories they left back in Rwanda. Anna's kindness is fraught with anger and regret, while Claudine remains thankful but uncomfortable in her new surroundings and traumatised by the massacre of her own family. Both actresses offer detailed performances that reveal their distress in subtly heartbreaking tones. Budnik refrains from dramatic histrionics and shows a woman struggling to cope and Umuhire, in particular, stands out thanks to the quiet energy she displays in almost every scene she's in.
The film opens with a long take zoomed into a horde of vultures noisily ravaging carrion. Kos-Krauze returns to moments like this throughout the film, contrasting the savagery of nature with our own inhuman and brutal tendencies. These experimental flashes add a disconcerting edge to the film that weds itself to the sadness neither Anna, nor Claudine, have been allowed to exorcise. DoP, Krzysztof Ptak, was responsible for the texture of these scenes and he was another member of the production team that passed away during filming. Birds Are Singing in Kigali doesn’t indulge in miserablism for the sake of it, instead, taking a realistic approach to the act of internalising and processing trauma. In every way imaginable this became a labour of love for Kos-Krauze and it is a film that is testament to the strength of the human spirit.