BFI LFF: Birds Are Singing in Kigali (2017)

In Birds Are Singing in Kigali two women return to Rwanda to find out if healing is possible after the genocide.

Home to Roost

by Alexa Dalby

Birds are Singing in Kigali

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

A Polish ornithologist escapes from 1994’s Rwandan genocide with the daughter of her murdered colleague and his wife. She takes her back to Poland but both are suffering from PTSD and eventually they return to Rwanda to search for their bodies to bury them.

Birds are Singing in Kigali starts with an overwhelming sense of urgency, confusion and terror. Anna Keller (Jowita Budnik) hides Claudine (Eliane Umuhire) in the boot of her car under a pile of dead birds but when they are stopped at a road block, the mass breakdown in law and order puts them in unimaginable dangers. Back in Poland, Anna has to help Claudine negotiate layers of bureaucracy in order to get refugee status and be allowed to stay, whilst the local community is explicitly racist. Both the older woman and the young girl are still traumatised by the horrors they’ve seen, which set them apart from the insular society in which they find themselves now. Claudine’s parents were hacked to pieces in front of her and to find resolution, she insists on returning to Rwanda to find their bodies and bury them. Anna, seeking her own resolution too, goes with her.

The contrast is extreme between the cold, grey orderliness of Poland and its people and the undisciplined, colourful chaos when they return to Kigali, where everyday life is getting back to normal on the surface but underneath its citizens are still recovering from the events of the genocide. So many people disappeared in terrible circumstances and they find it’s not always possible to put the pieces back together again. Friends and neighbours killed each other, and Claudine confronts and tries to reconcile with one of hers who is now in prison.

Anna and Claudine share not just the exceptional circumstances that threw them together but both of them also have to deal with the death of a parent in their very different ways. Making Anna an ornithologist means that bird imagery is used throughout, from predatory vultures to the absence of birds being yet another legacy of the genocide.

The film is clearly well intentioned and the acting and characterisation of the two women is intense. Though it aims to cover the by-now historical events in a realistic way, and it is a worthwhile representation of an emotive subject, the Polish-produced film very much sees Africa with a European gaze.

Birds Are Singing in Kigali screens in the 61st BFI London Film Festival on 5 and 6 October 2017.

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