When Netflix made the eight-part mini-series of 'Black Earth Rising' available on 25 January, it provided a second opportunity to engage with this confusing, overwhelming, and always astonishingly-produced story of the 1990s Rwandan genocide. In the Guardian's rundown of 2018's most 'essential, unmissable and twisted' television programmes, it was voted in at number eight (produced by BBC Two and directed by Hugo Blick). This was not an easy sell, despite Blick's success with 'The Shadow Line', and creating a narrative that was part-thriller and part-political polemic, without it becoming depressing or didactic, says a great deal for the project as a whole: writing, directing, filming and acting.
What brings 'Black Earth Rising' to the fore right now is the recent focus on Rwanda, in real life and in drama. While the television series looks back to the 1990s, the current pain of a country racked by divisions from that period is being played out still in various courtrooms. In December, the high-profile dissidents Diane Rwigara and her mother Adeline, who have been critical of the government of Paul Kagame, were acquitted in a Kigali court of charges that included inciting insurrection. There were hopes by Amnesty that this decision would lead to greater freedom of expression in Rwanda, where human rights are not always a first consideration by the government. Right now, in a South African court, an inquest has opened five years after the murder of Rwandan Patrick Karegeya, a former aide to President Kagame, who with others had set-up an opposition party in exile.
In the Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton, 'Our Lady of Kibeho', written by Katori Hall, received a five-star review in January, calling it a 'striking tale of religious visions before Rwanda's agony'. To quote Michael Billington in the Guardian, 'This is a play that swims against the tide by asking us to acknowledge the miraculous while also exploring the historical context of the Rwandan violence that the west notoriously did nothing to prevent'. While 'Black Earth Rising' has a different focus, in a different medium, nevertheless there is a compelling sense of daring to deal with a dangerous subject – in this case a fictionalised account of the prosecution of war criminals.
Excellent reviews can be found online, plus a rating of 100% at Rotten Tomatoes, so this is not intended to add to them, but rather simply to praise. The opening minutes of episode one are astonishing. In a lecture theatre, a barrister (Harriet Walter) is stopped in her very confident tracks by an articulate and angry black member of her audience who questions the right of the white west to have the audacity to assume that its judicial institutions are so superior to those of black Africa that an international court is necessary to see justice done.
With actors such as Michaela Coel, John Goodman, Norma Dumezweni and Lucian Msamati (Harriet Walter gets killed off early on), a story unfolds, sometimes using sequences of unearthly animation for unspeakable events, sometimes telephone conversations, occasional didactic explanations just when the details have become overwhelming, and the inclusion of movement, running, walking, pacing; all of these keep the viewer guessing and engaged. And John Goodman finds ice-cream cones in unlikely places. Leonard Cohen's 'You Want it Darker' as a theme song lays down a sense of foreboding which hangs in the memory as this complicated story about a nation divided against itself unfolds.
To the west, Rwanda has been somewhat of a success story, as illness and poverty have been tackled, education has improved, elections are held and the economy has grown. There is no denying that it has come through its own hell. There are current questions, though, about transparency, and whether the ends justify the political means – all of which are an integral part of the story in 'Black Earth Rising'. Will any country so divided benefit from knowing the truth about its past, or will honest debate serve to open still unhealed wounds? What kind of government is needed to draw a country together in the face of bitter divisions?
In Rwanda, an amendment to the constitution has, in theory, made it possible for the president to stay in office longer than the agreed two terms. Those in power often come to believe that only they have the answers and that opposition is a distraction, to be lied about, or perhaps done away with. 'Black Earth Rising' is not just about one country's agonies, it has echoes in the UK today, where more truth and debate about our very recent past and the future should be on the agenda to draw the country together. We could learn from the experience of those who have gone through a time in which division was taken to ultimate extremes.