Hugo Blick discusses the aftermath of the genocide, what went wrong with the International Criminal Court—and why he's wary of returning to Rwandaby Steve Bloomfield / October 30, 2018 / Leave a comment
Never has a British drama series managed to portray a period of African history with such seriousness, with such care and with such intelligence as Black Earth Rising.
To describe it simply as a legal thriller about the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath is to do it an injustice. It’s about French complicity in the genocide; about the new Rwandan government’s reprisals in neighbouring Zaire (as Congo was then known); about Rwanda’s subsequent support for Tutsi militia in Congo and its links to the mineral trade; about the way the Rwandan president abuses laws on divisionism and sectarianism to shut down almost all opposition.
It’s about the International Criminal Court and its seeming emphasis on African cases, about the West’s role in choosing which of these cases ever come to trial, about the ease with which those cases that do get as far as The Hague can be brought down with impunity—and deadly violence—by those who want them to be undermined.
And it’s about the West’s guilt over the Rwandan genocide: our refusal to intervene and our wariness about criticising the new regime that ended the violence and rebuilt the country, yet cracked down on opposition, dissent and—ultimately—democracy itself.
Most of all though, it’s about remembrance and forgetting.
As the main character, Kate Ashby, a survivor of the crimes against humanity committed in Rwanda and what was then known as Zaire in the mid-1990s, says in the final episode, “we have a duty to memory.” And yet, as she is told later, “everyone has bits of their past they choose to forget.”
This interview with Hugo Blick—the writer, producer and director of Black Earth Rising—which took place over phone and email earlier this month, has been edited and condensed.
Prospect: Let’s start at the beginning. How did the idea for this drama emerge?
Blick: While I was doing research for An Honourable Woman [Blick’s 2014 thriller starring Maggie Gyllenhall set in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian context] I touched upon the Nuremberg trials. I came back to it after An Honourable Woman, researched the International Criminal Court, and then went there [The Hague].
The long and short of it that surprised me was that the formal indictments that the ICC had issued are against Africans, and further against black Africans. That’s a puzzle. It weighs a little heavy. That gives you something of grift, of interest.
There was also an emotional, thematic story I wanted to explore on the vacuum of identity and the possession of identity. Further to this story is trauma, and the ownership of trauma. In order to know it you must know it in its entirety. Then you can own it and control it. You can only do that if you possess it all. If you can’t own it, you circle it forever.
You know that part of that destination is not just the genocide itself, but it’s also the aftermath of the genocide and what happened. I wanted to explore the curtailment of political space and the possibility of justice. The limitations and strengths of justice.
There are a number of Rwandan génocidaires [living in the UK] that have yet to be extradited [thanks to article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights: the right to a fair trial].
Why is there no element of fair trial in Rwanda? We tease that out.
And it’s a drama! It’s obviously a drama that’s aimed high in its concerns. It isn’t the destination I expected to achieve.
Prospect: Did you know where it was going?
Blick: This I didn’t. It became a point of investigative journalism as much as a drama. But the investigative aspect of the story needed to shape the moral of the drama. This was an unusual exercise in that respect.
It still focuses entirely on one woman’s search for her own identity. Allows her to remain in her birth country, playing a part in its judicial process.
Prospect: How did you sell this to the BBC? It’s the sort of story I would have struggled to sell to my editor when I was an Africa correspondent—the idea that you could turn this into a multi-million pound BBC drama…
Blick: I waited until Maggie Gyllenhall had won a Golden Globe. In fairness, they know that my work includes a certain attendant level of puzzlement and bafflement. They know that I’ll always give them a spicy project. They know that’s what I’m doing.
Once I introduced the subject matter there was a discussion. They’d had a tricky issue with a Panorama programme that had questioned the number of Tutsi victims. But they were dutifully supportive. What I’m trying to do is a little bit out there in terms of what most dramas do.
Prospect: The telling of the story of the Rwandan genocide often ends with the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s victory in 1994. Your story goes far beyond that.
Blick: There is no equivalence between the genocide and the refugee crisis in Congo, but there is an aftermath. To be able to possess it for themselves is surely the best, fluid way to create a harmonious long-term step forward within the Rwandan population.
The economic figures all look attractive. But how long they can be sustained? How great will the backlash be? The story is a marker of potential trouble as well as a celebration of the way the RPF and the Rwandan government has stabilised the country. That grip, where it was understandable, now it seems to be throttle grip. A strangled grip. That seems to me the danger of the current situation.
That political space remains absolutely strangulated. When you have a presidential election that has 97 per cent approval you are looking at another strongman of Africa. While the diplomatic corp of the UK and the US may celebrate… I question that health.
Prospect: How do you think the Rwandan government will respond to the drama?
Blick: It would not be considered wise for me to return to Rwanda at this time. To be deeply honest, I’m not sure Tony Hall would be welcomed in Rwanda at this time. Anyone who is engaging as I am, looking to explore in a fundamental critical level any level of Rwanda political activity, does make me vulnerable to arrest on arrival.
Prospect: Do you think part of the reason why the West has turned a blind eye is guilt?
Blick: I agree with that. It was obviously the response of the Clinton government. It made them blind to the reality of the refugee crisis and the consequences of it. Mass graves [in Zaire/Congo] were difficult to assert. But the disappearances were too great…
The Rwanda Patriotic Army [the armed force which ended the genocide] came to speak to the UK and US at that time claiming that the camps had largely been repatriated to Rwanda. Those remaining were participants.
Our silence came from guilt over not intervening. We all stood back to let them clear the last vestiges of what they said were “the Interahahmwe” [the génocidaires]. We turned a blind eye. Clinton particularly, and we fell behind them.
We then honoured our relationship with the establishing government. We were delighted by Kagame’s fortitude and his Western-leading nature. Not least by the embrace of the English language.
Prospect: Can we go back to your initial answer about the ICC and its focus on Africa? Isn’t it a bit more complicated than that? The first cases at the ICC were all African because those states asked the ICC to take them on. Uganda said it couldn’t prosecute the leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army; DRC said it couldn’t prosecute Thomas Lubanga….
Blick: The hope is that the indigenous nation where the crime took place is able to deal with the prosecution. But when government is incapable judicially of prosecuting they can request the ICC team to come in and indict these individuals so justice can be done in a remote environment.
My reflection upon that is: I take your point, but what we should be doing is reinvesting in the judiciary in which that trial can take place.
What intrigues me about the ICC’s formal African indictments is just how these so massively outweigh any equivalent investigations beyond the continent: Ukraine, Afghanistan, Columbia, Iraq, Myanmar, Palestinian Territories etc. And consequently, when some of these initial investigations have failed for not meeting the ICC’s criteria, the cause has invariably been put down to their complexity.
For me there is a danger to public perception that, in effect, the ICC finds African war crimes far more simple to prosecute, by example of the formal indictments it successfully procures, than it does the apparently insuperable complexity of investigating war crimes beyond the African continent. The accusation of the ICC being an instrument for post-colonialism may not stand up to detailed scrutiny but, for me, it remains vulnerable to the perception.
But then again, as Harriet Walker’s character says, “What else can we do?” When all our institutions of internationalism are falling apart, we say we’re here to provide justice where it might not have otherwise seen it.
Black Earth Rising ended its run on BBC Two on October 29th. The program is available on BBC iPlayer and will shortly appear on Netflix