Last weekend, I attended a screening of The Rescuers at the Athena Film Festival. The documentary follows Rwandan anti-genocide activist Stephanie Nyombayire and British historian Sir Martin Gilbert as they travel Europe and meet with Holocaust survivors and the descendents of the diplomats who saved the survivors from the Nazis. Interspersed with these interviews are Stephanie’s recollections of the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, during which many of her relatives were killed, as well as her thoughts on how current and future genocides can be prevented. Though I do think it serves as a good starting point for discussing contemporary genocides and anti-genocide advocacy, I found elements of the film to be problematic, which considerably diminished my appreciation of it.
I appreciated hearing the stories of the righteous diplomats. Though I have watched other documentaries about the Holocaust and am familiar with many stories of survivors, I am not familiar with many stories of the righteous gentiles who saved the lives of European Jews. Discussing the heroic actions of these individuals is critical to advance our understanding of genocides and how lives can be saved in such times of crisis. I’m glad that there’s a documentary that sheds light on these often forgotten stories, and I hope The Rescuers will be used in educational contexts to teach people about the significance of taking action during times of violence and genocide.
But as powerful as the stories about the diplomats and the survivors were, my attention was focused on Stephanie throughout the film. Stephanie lived with her parents in the Congo during the Rwandan genocide; they survived, but 100 of their relatives died in Rwanda. Since then, she has devoted her life to anti-genocide work. She co-founded the Genocide Intervention Network, reported on the Darfur genocide as part of the mtvU documentary Translating Genocide: Three Students Journey to Sudan, and “testified before the Texas Senate Commission, which unanimously passed Senate bill 247 on Divestment from Sudan.” Upon graduating from Swarthmore College, Stephanie returned to live in Kigali, Rwanda and continue her activism there.
Stephanie is an incredibly accomplished activist, and it is no wonder that someone would choose to make a documentary about her. The trouble is, the documentary wasn’t about her. None of the facts listed above, aside from the details about her family’s tragedy during the Rwandan genocide, were discussed in the film. On the contrary, though she is described as an activist, she is depicted as being Martin’s protégé, accompanying him on this trip so that she can learn from him. While I am certain the trip was educational for Stephanie and that there is much she may be able to learn from Martin, it is never suggested that perhaps he may be able to learn from her as well. I feel that this was a missed opportunity. Both Stephanie and Martin bring unique perspectives and knowledge to their trip, and there is no reason why one should be considered the expert and the other considered the student. And the fact that Martin (a well-known older white man) is treated as much more of an expert than Stephanie (a young woman of color) is a bit troubling.
Throughout the film, Stephanie is depicted as tenacious and bright. She continually asks the hard questions, such as when she recalls the Rwandan genocide and says, “Every time I visit my grandmother’s grave, I ask myself, ‘Where was her rescuer?'” And upon hearing about the risks that righteous gentiles had to take to ignore orders and act according to conscience, she asks, “Why can’t saving lives be policy?” She poses the right questions, and toward the end of the film, she returns to Kigali to meet “the rescuers” of the Rwandan genocide. Frustratingly, however, during this sequence, we only see footage of Stephanie interacting with other activists in Rwanda while music plays over the images. We do not hear any of the conversations she is having, unlike the conversations we heard Martin have with “the rescuers” with whom he interacted. Having worked on documentaries myself, I understand that unexpected circumstances can arise during production, and that it is not always feasible, for legal and/or privacy reasons, to feature the voices and perspectives of every individual one wishes to profile. I do not know what went on during the production of The Rescuers, so I do not know what was the case with this particular montage. That said, I found the lack of information distracting, and given that I felt engaged with Stephanie, I was disappointed to miss out on learning more about her advocacy work.
I do think that as a film about the righteous gentiles of the Holocaust, The Rescuers is a valuable film. I also believe that the film is a good starting point for conversations about anti-genocide activism. But I wish the film had highlighted Stephanie Nyombayire’s work more fully. Her story is as critical as the other stories presented in the film — and perhaps even more critical, as she is a young leader in the field of anti-genocide activism. I don’t understand why her voice was so muted throughout the film, even though it was she who continued to ask the important questions and tie the stories she heard back to more recent events in places like Rwanda and Sudan. Though I am glad that The Rescuers exists and I hope it is able to function as an educational tool, I have trouble fully endorsing it, as I see how it could have been considerably better. Stephanie Nyombayire is an accomplished woman with critical knowledge about anti-genocide activism. Her stories and knowledge should have been the heart of the film, rather than the background scenery.