“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Apparently he relocated to Rwanda. In the new documentary directed by Ben Proudfoot, the cameras follow eccentric Dartmouth retired professor Andrew Garrod from Vermont to the impoverished and recovering area of Rwanda to bring high school children the gift of Shakespeare. Why would anyone want to do this? Garrod saw the parallels between the conflict and resolution of the play Romeo and Juliet and the formerly warring tribes of the Hutus and the Tutsis. As you recall, 1 million Rwandan citizens were murdered in 100 days. Genocide performed by the Hutus against the Tutsis left few survivors, typically children, who are now young adults. Garrod, as a part of an American theatre group, is hoping that performing Romeo and Juliet can help bring reconciliation to the struggling country. What it ultimately brings is something very unexpected.
We begin our journey with Garrod from his book cluttered home in Vermont as he prepares for this expensive and overwhelming endeavor to create live theater in Rwanda. He seems a bit scattered as he comically attempts to refold a map of the world and find his misplaced passport. Arriving with his colleague, the casting calls and auditions begin with an underwhelming response. You can sense the tension and mistrust from the young actors listening to this rather demanding white man. We see both Garrod and the cast relax with time as they attempt to understand one another. Seeing Garrod dance by the sea and the kids’ joy that that brings is priceless. As the weeks pass, however, there are obstacles to overcome. Finances, expectations, and emotional obstacles all become a part of the possible failure of this man’s endeavor.
“Rwanda & Juliet” captures the reality of life, painting an accurate picture of all involved. Garrod is a perfectionist and his demands upon his students seem unrealistic. It’s at times uncomfortable to listen to him speak to these kids in the manner that he does. He seems to not fully understand the cultural issues and what these young adults have endured. And his own life and experiences seem much too different for him to succeed. You are on this journey with Garrod and on the edge of your seat as you don’t know whether or not he will succeed. I doubt him as I see him dig deeply into his own pension fund when a financial backer drops out. This stress is palpable. This film doesn’t have to have a Hollywood ending—it’s real.
Reading about the atrocities of the genocide that occurred in 1994 is one thing, but to hear the first hand account from those who have survived it is quite another. The candid individual interviews with cast members allows us to get a glimpse into what happened to each of them. After hearing their strong, passionate voices describe their memories or take us to the site where families’ bodies were dumped will bring you to tears. But their resolve and determination that allowed them to survive continues on as they look to the future with a smile. Tete who plays Juliet is simply inspirational. Clovis who plays the peacekeeper Benvolio shares the mixed emotions about the beauty and horrors of a nearby lake. With each of these actors having their own personal reasons for wanting to be in the play, we discover that perhaps a Shakespearean play can do more than reconcile differences, it can also be therapeutic.
“Rwanda & Juliet” beautifully captures and documents the ups and downs of putting on a play, but it also educates the viewer about the forgotten people of Rwanda. We feel that we are on a personal journey as we experience heartfelt sadness, doubt, anger, and overwhelming joy and hope of Garrod’s adventure. It’s a realistic and inspirational film allowing us to understand the common bonds that can form through the expression of art—in this case the production of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ The gift of theater and art knows no cultural boundaries, creating positive life changes.
To see “Rwanda & Juliet” at the Phoenix Film Festival, go to phoenixfilmfestival.org