“The Zookeeper’s Wife” at the cinema in Kigali

On Sunday, 25th June I had the pleasure to participate in the screening of “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, a Hollywood film with Jessica Chastain in the title role. The event was organised by the Polish Embassy in Nairobi and the Kigali Genocide Memorial. The film tells the story of the owners of the Warsaw Zoo who during World War 2 sheltered many Jews and saved their lives. The screening was preceded by an interesting panel discussion with Ambassador Marek Rohr-Garztecki, Permanent Representative of Poland to the UN in Nairobi, Agnieszka Klonowiecka-Milart, Judge of the UN Tribunal for the Khmer Rouge, and Anita Kayirangwa, responsible for education projects at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. An exhibition entitled “Righteous Without Borders”, prepared by the Warsaw Museum of the History of Polish Jews POLIN, was shown on the screen.

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The cinema in Kigali reopened last October after a few months of renovations. The regular programme isn’t particularly exciting but once in a while there are some special events (like the European Film Festival). I was happy to receive the invitation to the free screening of “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, mainly because its organisation was initiated by the Polish Embassy in Nairobi (there is no Polish diplomatic mission in Rwanda, although there is an Honorary Consul, a Rwandan who was present at the event but I couldn’t find him afterwards). The Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide have a lot in common, and a film about an attempt to annihilate a whole nation, and also about people who risked their lives to help the persecuted, would certainly find some understanding among Rwandans.

Ambassador Rohr-Garztecki focussed on this particular aspect, and told a story of his own family. His mother was Jewish, with a typically Jewish surname, and during the war her Polish friend helped her in an unusual way: she “lent” her her fiancé who gave the woman his Polish name and thanks to that she was able to survive. After the war they divorced, the friend got her man back, and was able to marry him 🙂 As the ambassador said: if it wasn’t for this lady, he wouldn’t be with us tonight. In Rwanda, there are similar stories of Hutus who didn’t want to join the slaughter and tried to help the Tutsis. I’m glad this was mentioned as I often get the impression that these courageous people are not given enough recognition. The official name of the Genocide stresses that it was “against the Tutsi”, which is true of course, but many Hutus who disagreed with the actions of their compatriots also died, trying to help Tutsi neighbours and strangers. The story of two Hutu women who risked their lives to do just that was part of the presentation shown on the screen during the discussion.

The next speaker was Judge Klonowiecka-Milart. Since 2006 she has been a member of the Supreme Court Chamber of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, in 2016 she was elected to the United Nations Dispute Tribunal in Nairobi, and between 2000 and 2009 she was the most senior international judge of the UN Interim Administration Mission to Kosovo. Judge Klonowiecka-Milart talked about the history of the term “genocide” from the legal point of view. It turns out there there are still disagreements among lawyers regarding the proper definition, which is why all those UN tribunals take so many years to reach any conclusion. I learnt an interesting fact, namely that the author of the definition used today, and applied in the case of Rwanda, was a Polish lawyer Rafał Lemkin. As the judge said, both Poland and Rwanda witnessed the genocide. Although the Holocaust wasn’t officially called “genocide” at the Nuremberg trials, it was Lemkin, a Pole of Jewish origins, who after World War 2 came up with the definition of this crime and began working on a convention aimed at preventing and prosecuting the acts of genocide. This convention was ratified by the UN in 1948. Nearly 50 years later, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was the first international court to use Lemkin’s definition of the genocide and issue rulings against those accused of this crime.

The third panelist, Anita Kayirangwa, talked about educational activities organised by the Kigali Genocide Memorial. She observed that the genocide isn’t something that comes about overnight. Before it happens, there are many incidents and signals, including hate speech, discrimination and marginalisation of a particular group, spreading malicious information about it, etc. The genocide is a final result of all those issues coming together, and since they are easily noticeable, it can be prevented from happening. If there is a will to do so… The Rwandan government stresses that it does everything it can to make sure such horror doesn’t happen again, but it also emphasises the importance of education and of explaining to its people how and why it happened at all – and this what the Kigali Genocide Memorial is mainly involved in.

As the presentations began nearly an hour late, and took more time than anticipated, there was no time for Q&A but the guests were encouraged to speak to the panelists after the screening. Among the viewers was my Rwandan colleague with his kids and I was really glad to see him (although it turned out the film wasn’t really suitable for children…). The Papal Nuncio, a Latvian, was also present. He managed to speak with the ambassador just before the screening started, and at one point they both looked my way. It turned out the Nuncio told Mr Rohr-Garztecki about me and encouraged me to speak with him later. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to do that as both the ambassador and the judge were standing in the hall, immersed in deep conversation with the Rwandan Chief Justice. I waited for at least 10 minutes but it didn’t look like they were about to finish soon, and I thought it would have been rude to interrupt them. I didn’t mind though, it was interesting enough to listen to them before the screening 🙂

Now, as far as the film itself is concerned, I have mixed feelings. It’s great that the story of Jan and Antonina Żabiński made it to Hollywood, and that the world will learn about them – they thoroughly deserve it. But a few things irritated me. First of all, I really don’t understand this weird Hollywood thing of making actors speak English with an accent that is supposed to reflect the fact that the film is taking place in a non-English speaking country and the characters don’t actually speak English. Not only does it sound artificial, in most cases it’s also a failure, including in this film. Jessica Chastain sounds Russian, which was to be expected as that’s what usually happens with attempts at any Slavic accent. None of the leading and supporting actors are Polish (Jan Żabiński is played by a Belgian actor Johan Helderbergh, Jerzyk, Żabiński’s employee and friend, is portrayed by an Irishman Michael McElhatton, known from “Game of Thrones”, there are also some Czech actors; at least the role of the German Lutz Heck was given to the great German actor, Daniel Brühl, and some of the Jews are played by Israelis). In fact, not one scene was filmed in Poland but in the Czech Republic. I know that not much of Warsaw was left after the war but I’m pretty sure one could find a street or a few buildings, in the capital or in another town, which could be shown in the film – not much of the city appears anyway (mainly the Jewish Ghetto) as most of the scenes take place in the zoo and in Żabinski’s house. I must admit that the language thing really affected my reception of the film. Besides, Jessica Chastain didn’t convince me either. She’s so whiny and lacking in energy, she was getting on my nerves, which is a shame as I consider her a good actress. The whole story was also a bit fragmented, and that’s understandable as it had to be confined to ca. 2 hours 😉 But when Janusz Korczak appeared on screen, I thought that most international viewers wouldn’t know who that man was, getting on the cattle train with lots of children and departing in an unclear direction (we in Poland know he was a children’s author and a teacher who ran an orphanage, and when the German soldiers came to collect nearly 200 children to send them to a concentration camp, Korczak voluntarily joined the orphans. We know that they all perished in Treblinka extermination camp, but all that the film implies is that they are going to a place where nothing good awaits them).

However, I still think “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is worth watching, if only for the story of extraordinary people like the Żabińskis, of whom I hadn’t heard before. Thus, I learnt something new about my own country! But the film is certainly unsuitable for children as it contains quite a lot of violence (brutal killings of animal and people); there is also a horrible scene where a young girl in the Ghetto is dragged away by two Nazi soldiers and later emerges from a passageway, beaten, with torn clothes and blood running down her legs… Some kids present at the cinema were crying, and some parents had to take them away. My colleague was greatly moved by the film and asked me afterwards if Poland really had such a terrible history. I got the impression that, although he may not have understood everything as English is not his first language, and some historical details may have been unclear (I’m not sure how they teach history in Rwandan schools, apart from local history, but someone once told me they’d met quite a few people here who were complimentary of Hitler as he fought for the unity of his nation…), the knowledge that there is another nation, so far away geographically and culturally, that also suffered unimaginable violence, created a kind of bond. It goes without saying that you can’t compare genocides, but the mechanisms were pretty much the same (Anita Kayiranga from the Kigali Genocide Memorial mentioned that as well). Which brings me to an inevitable and sad conclusion that the lofty statement “Never again”, which appeared after the Holocaust and which people still write in guest books in Auschwitz, has no reflection in reality. History hasn’t taught us anything.

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