Director Jo Ingabire Moys, a courageous survivor of the Rwandan genocide, struggled with facing the history of her country until coming across the true story of Zura Karuhimbi whose bravery lies at the heart of her incredibly powerful BAFTA nominated short Bazigaga. Moys initially planned to create a cinematic biography of the undersung heroine but upon learning of her passing weeks before they were due to meet, decided to pay homage to Zura through her delicate allegorical exploration of persecution. Bazigaga achieves a phenomenal amount in its short run time exploring the religious conflicts in Rwandan society, the terrifying normality of this time for so many people and an examination of women and their role in the genocide. Bazigaga offers audiences a stunningly balanced colour palette which only serves to highlight the terrifying brutality faced by the Tutsis. Eager to discover more, we spoke to Moys about bringing a different vantage point to depictions of that time, her pride in being able to tell an African story in Kinyarwanda which draws in audiences and plaudits alike, and the power of silence in storytelling.
The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.
Bazigaga is an incredibly powerful directorial debut, what drew you to tell this story?
I came across the story a few years ago at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. I was looking into my family’s history and had lots of questions about the history of the country which I really wanted to get into and familiarise myself with. For a long time when I was in the UK, I pretended to be from Burundi because being Rwandan was not a great association. So when I was ready I went to the museum and I came across the story of Zura Karuhimbi. It is the most incredible story of a middle aged woman who decided to save people using witchcraft or the threat of witchcraft. During the genocide she had over 200 Tutsis in her house and when people came to hunt for them, she would make lots of noises to threaten curses, and they left her to it. Militias of armed men with guns, grenades and machetes were scared of her.
I knew that if I was ever going to tell the story of Rwanda at this time, this was the story to tell.
I just found that to be the most astonishing thing. Firstly, because it was such a courageous thing to do and I wondered why these people, holding all of the power, were afraid of this tiny little woman who was threatening them with only words. It’s such a bizarre power to possess on her part and made me want to explore more as it is so telling of Rwandan society and what was happening at the time. Rape was widely used as a weapon of war and women were generally portrayed as victims but after delving into Zuru’s story I discovered more powerful women, unknown stories of women who did incredibly heroic things, and also women who did incredibly horrific things to other women acting as part of the genocide. I knew that if I was ever going to tell the story of Rwanda at this time, this was the story to tell.
How did you build upon telling the story of Zura with the allegory between the pastor’s suffering and the suffering he in turn put her through?
Initially, I just wanted to tell the story of Zura but unfortunately, she passed away before I was able to interview her. I felt like I could not do her justice and I couldn’t tell her story having never spoken in person so I couldn’t do a biographical piece but still wanted to pay homage to her. For me, one of the most fascinating aspects to her was the religious side of her character which I wanted to explore alongside the role of mysticism which played a very important role in Rwandan society at that time.
People who were saved by her or people who were saved by Muslims for instance had a much better chance of survival than people who fled to churches. Religion had, and still does, have such an important hold on Rwandan society. The role of Christians in the genocide is appalling and quite scary once you delve into it and so I wanted to create a world where all these layers are contained. That’s why I wanted to bring two people, from different walks of life, together. A male Tutsi pastor vs an older Hutu female shaman. They represent lots of different aspects of Rwandan society at that time and I really wanted to distil all of that into two characters who are not just archetypes but real people who come together and see if they’re going to survive they need to see each other as humans rather than what they represent to each other.
I was really struck by these poignant moments of silence interspersed in the chaos surrounding them. Why were these so important to you?
I think it’s such an important thing that you pointed out because silence is usually associated with peace and tranquillity. However, in a setting like this, you realise that silence means something completely different and I find it to be really menacing. You have the militia outside guarding them, shouting and partying. Then of course you have the radio which is a constant noise buzzing around them all the time, spewing hate and updates. Those moments of silence, as I think people from war zones will attest to, are the scariest. You don’t know what’s happening, it could very well be the calm before the storm and so I felt like that was a really good way of containing what was happening and adding to the tension. I also think those are the moments when you see the characters for the humans that they are rather than what’s happening to them.
Those moments of silence, as I think people from war zones will attest to, are the scariest.
The majority of the film takes place in that one tiny house, how did you create such a fleshed-out and vibrant world in such a restricted space?
That room is inspired by my grandmother’s house. We had an amazing set designer and I knew that if I could create that with the quirks and decor it would be a world within itself. Zuru was a traditional healer and I have memories of visiting such houses in the Rwandan countryside. I really wanted to bring that to life. I felt if I could be authentic and create the house I would be able to draw from my childhood memories and bring that world to life.
The home is cinematic in itself, she is pretending to be a witch doctor and it is her stage to perform the role she has been given. It also adds a sense of claustrophobia, you realise that this is her world and her domain and the pastor comes in very much as an outsider. It created the feeling of being under siege which is so important and why I kept everything in that room. Essentially, it is a story of these two people facing each other in this room, I didn’t want much else to distract from that.
There’s an incredible aerial shot where all seems calm yet we know the most horrific acts are occurring, what was your reasoning for shifting to that vantage point?
The exterior shots are all done in the Rwandan countryside where Zuru’s house would have been. I wanted to bring that sense of calm, although there was a massacre happening, normal life was carrying on for a lot of people and it was just an average day. I’m in the process of speaking to people about their experiences in the war and it’s such a shocking divide. Some were hiding in the most desperate places and others were just going about their normal Tuesday, completely unaffected. I wanted to bring that aspect of life during that time to the screen, it’s important to show and adds to the menace of that time.
Talking about the clashes under the seams, your cinematography and colours are so vibrant and alive in contrast with the horror of the situation. What informed that tonal treatment of the visuals?
I designed our colour palette with our incredible Cinematographer Thomas Brémond, we wanted to create a world of Paradise Lost. Rwanda is a stunning country. April would have been the rainy season when nature and everything comes to life. The greens are super lush, it’s harvest time and there’s fruit hanging everywhere. It’s very much alive from April to June which is the time period where this film is set. We wanted to bring that to life, whilst all of those horrible things were happening to people, nature was thriving and I wanted to juxtapose those two aspects. Even in this beautiful country and beautiful setting, all these horrible things are happening.
I wanted to bring that sense of calm, although there was a massacre happening, normal life was carrying on for a lot of people and it was just an average day.
After you finished filming and had gathered your footage from Rwanda and interior shots from La Reunion, where did you then move to complete post production? How was that process of bringing the film together?
This film is a French, British and Belgian co-production so we edited in Belgium. As I’m sure most directors will attest to, the first cut is very scary. When I first looked through the rushes I was convinced I didn’t have a film. It’s a short film so I can’t re-shoot anything and it’s raining so I can’t go back and it’s the middle of COVID, I was terrified. But we worked with the most incredible post production team. We were able to sit down, go through the rushes and get the things I wanted. I didn’t get everything I wanted which I suppose is the first thing you notice but it was a very tight shoot. It’s a short film so budgets are limited and we were working with a crew well out of our range so they only had a specific amount of time. We assembled what we had and luckily in the end, we had a coherent narrative led by an incredible post production team who did wonders.
How does it feel to be BAFTA nominated and to have Bazigaga celebrated on such a prestigious platform?
I was not expecting a BAFTA nomination, I know most people say that but I genuinely thought it was too left-field. It is an incredible honour because this is a film in Kinyarwanda and a Rwandan story and you never think a film like this would be up for Best British. I haven’t seen films like this nominated before. It’s such a huge honour to tell a story that obviously means a lot to me and for someone making films like this to be given a platform. I’m very grateful for that and still very surprised to be honest. We have a different narrative coming from Rwanda, where women are heroes and saviours which is rare to see.
So the pressure is on now, what are you working on next?
I have a few different things, I’m developing the feature version of Bazigaga and I’m very interested in working on stories like this. African stories that aren’t usually offered to an audience. I used to think there wasn’t a place for these kinds of stories but then you make them and people are interested. I’ve been in Rwanda for a little bit doing a lot of research about African stories and I’m developing two things on that. I think there’s so much that we can offer to the world in terms of stories and cinema.
African cinema is a very nascent scene at the moment but there’s so much there that we can offer to the wider world and these days I don’t think audiences need to limit themselves to a particular kind of cinema. This is a film made by Africans, in an African language with subtitles and people respond to it and get it. All the intentions I put into it and the things I wanted people to get, come across so there is no barrier in cinema in terms of how people tell and interpret stories. Cinema is a universal language.