Screens at CIFF: 10/18 & 10/20 & 10/21
World premiere: 28 January, 2013, Göteborg International Film Festival

There was a time, believe it or not, when 70 minutes or so was considered quite a fine running time for a feature film - certainly on the short side of things rather than the long side, but common enough that it bore no mentioning. That time was about 90 years ago. Nowadays, a film that short - freakishly short, by some commercial standards - is far enough away from the mainstream of things that it's tempting to accuse it of requiring an entirely different storytelling skill set, one that there's not very much reason to cultivate.

Imbabazi: The Pardon is 73 minutes long, and it strikes me that writer-director Joël Karekezi has not done the work of cultivating that skill set just yet, because whatever its other virtues and demerits, it's not a 73-minute story. In fact, you might want save a copy of this review, because it is about to mark a heretofore unknown moment in this blog's history, where I make the incredibly uncharacteristic claim that this here movie, frankly, needs to be a whole lot longer. It's not that it's so short in this iteration that it doesn't have the proper room to breathe; it's so short that it doesn't function, not in anything like the way that the filmmakers presumably intended.

The setting is Rwanda in 2009 briefly, and then 1994, and then 2009 again. Fifteen years after the genocide that turned that country into a living hell for the Tutsi ethnic group, one survivor, Karemera (Wilson Egessa), receives a shocking bit of news: Manzi is being released from prison, at long last. Who Manzi is, and why this should offend Karemera so much, is the subject of a flashback that begins quite without formal announcement, a gesture that I quite liked; it suggests the rude, abrupt way that the past has asserted itself without even a "by your leave".

And so, in 1994, we find the younger Karemera and Manzi (Joel Okuyo Atiku,) are dear, dear friends, comfortable in each other's lives in all the ways that happen when you've known somebody since before you remember. The problem is that Manzi is a Hutu, and Karemera is a Tutsi, and we arrive on the scene right around the time that the paramilitary rhetoric being pumped over the airwaves on a constant basis has riled up ethnic tension in Rwanda to a point it's more a question of how and when the Hutus will act on their increasingly inflamed race hate. It's enough to get Karemera fired from his job as a waiter, and it's as he wanders about jobless that he's accosted by one of the leaders of an exceptionally radical Tutsi resistance group, asking that he join in the violent countermeasures they're planning. Karemera rejects this offer flat, but the two of them are together on the street just long enough for Manzi to spot them, and make the wrong conclusions, putting a severe crack in the friends' relationship. From here it's only a tiny nudge before Manzi, already under considerable pressure in the powder keg of Rwanda in spring, 1994, joins up with the local militia, to get his training in how to kill the Tutsi cockroaches with the machetes that became the iconic weapon of the genocide. Without bothering to go into much detail, let us say that his baptism involves taking particularly retributive action against Karemera, stamping out the last measure of kindly feeling that he still has in his heart.

15 years go by in the flash of a cut (another great little touch), and now Manzi wants, genuinely, to atone; where for Karemera, the only atonement that could be acceptable would be to die and leave behind no trace of memory. This intractable situation crops up immediately and steadfastly refuses to resolve as penance and forgiveness war with the perpetuation of justifiable but nonconstructive hatred and resentment, in what could potentially be a more overt allegory for Rwanda's attempt to survive its traumatic past and built up a future, but that would probably require the characters having silly, metaphorically-laden names, so let's just go ahead and say that this is a staggeringly unsubtle allegory altogether.

The film is damn lucky that it can get by on allegory, because it was never going to hack it as a character drama. The biggest reason takes us back to the film's running time: with 73 minutes to cover, really, two entirely different plot lines (Manzi joins the militia and then has to face his emotional reluctance to perpetuate this violence; Manzi wishes above all to atone, but Karemera wishes to deny him that escape from his deeds), there's not a frame that can be wasted, and Imbabazi has at least this much success: it whittles the conflict down to its essentials bit and pieces required to tell a coherent story. Where things are sacrificed, unfortunately, comes in the form of things like a well-established backstory that shows us Manzi's relationship with Karemera in sufficient plot-free detail that we understand who they are as friends and what is being lost to the civil violence. Such a minuscule amount of the short running time is devoted to pre-genocidal rhetoric Rwanda that we can fairly claim that the film offers us no good look at this state of affairs at all. The friendship between they two men is stated; it is stated all over. It is not, though, shown, and cinema, as we all know, is a showing medium.

Besides, even if the script was airtight through some miracle, we'd still have a largely unforgivable population of actors, though it is probably more the fault of the director given that every performance goes wrong in about the same way: over-declaratory opening material that turns into something more sedate and rational fast enough that it's pretty clearly not just a stylistic thing that I don't get. At their worst, the performance throw their arms and orate their lines (which are predominately in English) like how a teenager might think you're supposed to play Shakespeare.

No mincing words: we need Rwandan genocide films. It is a subject that has been documented and discussed in such fringy ways that it still, almost two decades on, a sort of blank spot in most Westerners' sense of recent history, and there is clearly so much unresolved trauma around the question, "how do we again live as neighbors and brothers in the aftermath of such widespread atrocity?" that as long as Rwandans keep making fictional treatments of this topic, I will keep seeking them out. But sociology only gets you so far when the drama is totally stillborn, and there's nothing in Imbabazi, which reheats existing arguments and does so with a nearly complete absence of visual grace, that saves it from its peculiarly flaccid script.