MEET OUR STUDENTS: Budding Filmmaker Emerges from Shadow of Genocide

Virgile Mahoro, Rhode Island College student

The 1990 civil war in Rwanda began when Virgile Mahoro, a RIC communication major, was 10 years old. Four years later, the conflict would turn to genocide. An estimated 800,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were killed by extremist Hutus within a span of three months. The weapons they used were farm implements: rocks, clubs, spears, hoes and machetes. Their victims were often their own friends and neighbors.

In a voice so soft one must strain to hear him, Mahoro spoke of the atrocities he witnessed: locals fleeing homes that had been set on fire, dead bodies floating down the river. His parents worked at a government job in a tea factory, which provided the family with a truck to whisk them to a French refugee camp at a Rwandan school. However, before the end of the massacre, other members of Mahoro’s extended family would be killed.

Nyamata Catholic Church. Image credit Steve Simon.
Six years later, Mahoro stood in a long line waiting to audition for a part in 100 Days, the first feature film about the Rwandan genocide. He and many other locals pressed close, surrounded by mountains and dense forests. Not far away at the Nyamata Catholic Church the skulls of those massacred on April 10, 1994, lined the walls where once people prayed. Mahoro was now 20, fresh out of high school, and excited because this was the first feature film ever made in his country.

The film was being produced by Nick Hughes, a British journalist, and Eric Kabera, a Rwandan Tutsi who had come out of exile. Its title is a direct reference to the length of time between the beginning of the genocide on April 6, 1994, and its ending in mid-July 1994.

It tells the story of a young Tutsi girl who finds sanctuary in a church, supposedly protected by UN forces, but the church’s Hutu priest deceives her and agrees to spare her life only if she submits to his sexual advances.

“I auditioned, but there were better actors and actresses than I,” Mahoro said. “So I did small jobs around the set, such as finding supplies, making sure locations were available and translating between the filmmakers and the locals.” The official language of Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, is French and English. The native language, Kinyarwanda.

Photo credit: Yuri Dojc:
Mahoro quickly developed a love for the technical side of filmmaking. One Hundred Days was released in 2001 and spawned a number of successors, the most notable of which was Hotel Rwanda, nominated for three Oscars.

Though Mahoro would have liked to pursue filmmaking, there were no schools for budding artists like himself in Rwanda. Instead he applied to the Kigali Institute of Education to learn to become a high school literature teacher.

Meanwhile, Kabera, one of the producers of 100 Days, decided to create the Rwanda Film Centre, the first training site in the country for filmmakers. In the first year, two apprentices studied under Kabera. The next year, a handful more received tutelage. By 2005 Kabera felt that enough short films had been created by his students to establish a film festival.

The traveling cinema came to be known as the Rwandan Film Festival. In the beginning, half a dozen short films were played on an inflatable screen in seven different locations on seven successive days. In a country with just one television station, the festival brought in up to 10,000 people per show.

As a student at the Kigali Institute of Education, Mahoro was active in helping to bring the festival to his campus. He also joined a creative writing club, where he taught high school students to write for the media.

Pupils at a Rwandan secondary school. Photo credit:
“In Rwanda during the war we had a very bad experience with media,” Mahoro said. “The radio station in the capital contributed to the tribal enmity between Hutus and Tutsis by spreading propaganda that escalated the violence.

“The less educated and the unemployed didn’t have good judgment and went along with whatever the radio said. It made me want to produce media that is instructive and educational, rather than one that incites people to violence.”

Mahoro graduated from Kigali at age 25 and taught high school literature for a year. Marriage to an American from Colorado brought him to the United States. Today, he is a senior in RIC's communication department.

Anthony Galvez, RIC professor of communication, described Mahoro as a “mature student" who continues to produce ”exemplary” work.

“When I first met him I mistook his quiet demeanor for shyness,” Galvez said, “but as I interacted with him more, I realized he’s someone who believes in thinking carefully before he speaks. It’s an enviable quality.”

If he could produce a film tomorrow, Mahoro said he would focus on poverty in developing countries, particularly in Rwanda.

Left, Virgile Mahoro. Right, Rwandan orphan. Photo credit:
He said, “I came from a family that was not poor by Rwandan standards, yet we lived in a house without water and electricity until I was a teenager. Though I never went to bed hungry, and I always had my basic needs met – food, shelter, clothing – there were times when we lived on less than a dollar a day. A few people had government jobs; but if you asked most people what they did for a living, they’d say they were farmers. If you had food, your family member or your neighbor couldn’t starve. Rwandan people will try to help one another. But sometimes you had nothing, and there were many who starved, who had no source of revenue.”

Though Mahoro prefers to leave the specter of genocide behind him, he knows that poverty and war has changed him. “I have a different perspective on life,” he said. “I consider life more precious, because I’ve witnessed how life can get lost.”

Mahoro lives with his wife, daughter and a son-on-the-way in Providence, RI. He plans to graduate from Rhode Island College in 2013 and to go on to earn a master’s degree in communication.