Kinoteka Polish Film Festival: Birds Are Singing in Kigali Review
Anna Keller (Jowita Budnik) is a Polish ornithologist working in Rwanda in 1994. Fleeing the country in the wake of the genocide of the Tutsi population by Hutu extremists, she smuggles Claudine (Eliane Umuhire), the daughter of a dead colleague, back to Poland. Granted asylum, Claudine moves in with Anna, but finds it difficult to adjust to living in a foreign country and to deal with what has happened in her home nation. She is unable to return to Rwanda, even for a visit, until she has Polish residency or citizenship, as she would not be able to re-enter Poland afterwards, and this puts a strain on the two women's friendship. Eventually they are able to go back to Rwanda and are confronted by the past.
The third film co-written and co-directed by Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze, Birds Are Singing in Kigali (Ptaki śpiewają w Kigali) is also unfortunately the last. A married couple offscreen, their first feature film together was My Nikifor (also showing at this year's Kinoteka Polish Film Festival), which he solo-directed, but she co-wrote it with him and served as first assistant director. With their next film, Saviour Square (Plac Zbawiciela) in 2016, they became co-directors as well as co-writers, and this continued with Papusza, which opened the 2014 Festival in 2014 and is shown again at this year's.
Birds Are Singing in Kigali is based on a short story by Wojciech Albiński. The subject matter had a personal resonance for the two directors, as they had lived in Africa for a number of years. The film was a troubled production, as Krauze died of cancer early in production in 2014 and the main cinematographer, Krzysztof Ptak, died in 2016.
Anna's main field of study is vultures, who feed on the flesh of the dead, and the film opens with a close-up of the birds, so close that we cannot see anything except a flurry of feathers and don't realise what we are seeing until the camera pulls back. From time to time, the directors bridge scenes with shots of nature at its most destructive: vultures feeding on carrion, the beating heart of a fish, the pulsations of a dead animal's intestines. When it comes to the violence that humans can inflict on each other, the film suggests, we have not evolved much from what animals do as part of their nature. Claudine's isolation in Poland, where at first she doesn't speak the language, is expressed visually by shots narrowing the frame, often cutting characters off behind doorways and windows. At the halfway point, Claudine and Anna return to Rwanda, years after the genocide, but the land will not be at peace for centuries. No birds sing any more. Instead there is silence.
Jowita Budnik, who played the title role in Papusza, is a strong presence in the leading role – not always sympathetic but clearly passionate and driven. With dialogue in Kinyarwanda, English and Polish, Eliane Umuhire is fine in a difficult role which is also not written and played for easy sympathy. Many times, the directors simply show her face, with no dialogue – and it speaks volumes. Birds Are Singing in Kigali is an often despairing film, but in facing the atrocities that humans can inflict on each other, it's a testament to survival and to hope.
Birds Are Singing in Kigali shows at the BFI Southbank, London, on 7 March at 6pm as the opening night film of the 16th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, and is followed by a Q & A with Joanna Kos-Krauze. My Nikifor shows at the BFI Southbank, at 6pm, also followed by a Joanna Kos-Krauze Q & A. Papusza shows at the BFI Southbank on 8 March at 8.20pm with an introduction by Joanna Kos-Krauze.