The genocide in Rwanda and the power of media to shape history

This year it’s been 30 years since the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. It´s one of the most filmatised genocides ever. However, the media representation of the event varies between Western portrayals and local films. In a new book, film scholar Tommy Gustafsson shows how film and television shape our perception of history.

In April 1994, the massacre that came to be known as the Rwandan genocide began, in which more than 800.000 people were murdered. Since then, numerous TV news and about 200 films and documentaries about the genocide have been produced, making it the second most filmatised genocide after the Holocaust.

Book cover
Historical Media Memories of the Rwandan Genocide: Documentaries, Films, and Television News.

Tommy Gustafsson's recent book, Historical Media Memories of the Rwandan Genocide: Documentaries, Films, and Television News, demonstrates how the genocide has been reproduced in various media. A recurring theme in Western portrayals is the representation of Africa as violent and irrational.

A colonial image of Africa

For instance, Gustafsson has studied how the genocide was portrayed in Swedish TV news during the 100 days that the genocide lasted. The news coverage began in the first week with long daily reports, focusing on the evacuation of Westerners. These segments also contained vivid images of black dead bodies along roadsides, in rivers, and piled up, and of people being killed at a roadblock. These images were frequently repeated and used to create narratives based on them.

"The news reporting on TV was characterised by a prejudiced and colonial perspective, where Africa was portrayed as violent, irrational, and immature. Thus, it was unresponsive to Western solutions such as democracy, capitalism, and the UN’s peacekeeping efforts. On the very first day, a commentator on TV4's The News explained that 'there is a great risk, of course, that we simply let them continue killing each other, and continue to turn our backs on them,' says Gustafsson, professor of film studies.

The images, filmed during the first week by international TV journalists, were reused and reproduced by international media to illustrate and explain the genocide in a simplified way.

200 Films

The images from TV news were later reused in many of the films and documentaries about the genocide that were produced. Totalling approximately 200, produced internationally in 39 countries between 1994 and 2021. Examples include the films Hotel Rwanda and Ghosts of Rwanda, both from 2004, which sparked a wave of new films about the genocide.

"The images of corpses were recreated in film after film. This reinforced the image of a violent and irrational Africa. Thus, the films maintain what can be called a global historical memory of the genocide," says Gustafsson.

A new Rwandan identity
However, there are also films about the genocide that have a different focus, especially those produced in Rwanda. They focus instead on reconciliation and creating a new national identity. These films do not use violent images to the same extent as Western representations, as it goes against the idea of reconciliation and because everyone in Rwanda already knows the violence. One example is the film Intore from 2014.

"The genocide has become an important part of the new national identity in Rwanda, where the ethnic designations Hutu and Tutsi are avoided today and Rwandian is used instead," Gustafsson explains.

Gustafsson's tips: 10 must-see films about the genocide in Rwanda

  • 100 Days (Nick Hughes, UK, Rwanda 2001)
  • Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, UK, South Africa, Italy, USA 2004)
  • Ghosts of Rwanda (Greg Barker, USA 2004)
  • A Sunday in Kigali (Robert Favreau, Canada 2006)
  • Triage: Dr James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma (Patrick Reed, Canada 2007)
  • Iseta: Behind the Roadblock (Juan Reina, Kenya, Rwanda 2008)
  • Finding Hillywood (Chris Towey, Leah Warshawski, USA 2013)
  • Intore (Eric Kabera, Rwanda 2014)
  • Life After Death (Joe Callander, USA 2014)
  • Petit Pays (Small Country, Eric Barbier, France, Belgium 2020)

What is the message of the book?

"First, it is important to be aware of the significant role that historical narratives  in film and TV plays. For example, how the past is used with various intentions, and when certain images and explanations are constantly repeated in different media to create historical memories," says Tommy.

"Second, I want to highlight the Rwandan genocide and show how images from the event have been created and reproduced in films since 1994. Mainly from a Western perspective that gives the image of a violent Africa, but also from a local perspective, where Rwanda created its own images and media memories of the genocide, with the aim of creating a new national identity."

Learn More

Learn more about the book at Edinburgh University Press, where it is available for free download.