The short film “The Barber of Kigali” starts with a series of illustrations—color drawings of a forest, with a small house on the bank of a peaceful river and a blue bird on a branch.
Suddenly, the sky turns purple as black vultures obscure the sun and people are seen fleeing from soldiers intent on killing. The images, accompanied by a haunting musical score, evoke the 1994 genocide in Rwanda during which extremists from the Hutu majority killed nearly one million Tutsis in about 100 days.
Set in a barbershop in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, the 7-minute mini drama of Canadian filmmaker James Cohen, is not only about the genocide but about how survivors react when facing those who killed their loved ones.
A sharp razor in hand, the barber in Cohen’s short film has the man who murdered his father at his mercy in his barber’s chair—the man’s throat exposed to be shaved with no witnesses in sight.
“‘He who seeks revenge will be destroyed by it,’” the barber says, quoting words uttered by his father before his death.
Based on an adaptation of a short story by Hernando Tellez, Cohen’s film, which was presented during the CamboFest film festival last weekend in Siem Reap town, has been shown at seven international film festivals to date.
The 34-year-old filmmaker spent five days in Siem Reap town for the screening of his film and to produce short documentaries about Cambodia that will be posted on the Web site of the US-based Human Rights Action Center toward the end of January.
As in the case of his short fiction film, the new documentaries address present issues through the eyes of individuals who deal with them—three generations of Cambodian women in a family demonstrating how the lives of women have changed over the last two decades, or a Cambodian orphan talking of his daily life and dreams for the future.
“I’ve been fascinated with Cambodia not just because of the [Khmer Rouge] tragedy but because I was interested if there was a moment, after a people [have been] devastated as in Cambodia, where a greater nation can be built, one of peace and one of hope,” Cohen said Tuesday.
Little in Cohen’s earlier work points toward films and documentaries on genocide or post-conflict issues.
After leaving university 10 years ago, he managed to secure a job in New York City on the production team of “Saturday Night Live,” the legendary weekly television show on which a swath of US comedy film stars first worked.
But after four years on the network television program, Cohen decided to return to his hometown of Toronto to mainly direct films on social issues and human rights. He also decided to obtain a teacher’s certification.
Since then, Cohen said he has divided his time between teaching high school English and shooting features, documentaries as well as advertising spots.
In 2000, he developed a US advertising campaign to gather support for human rights and democracy in Burma. Three years ago, he documented his students from a poor neighborhood of Toronto doing a film on their daily lives and problems.
In March, Cohen will embark on his first feature film, a 90-minute fiction story centered around the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur, where the death toll of people killed by militias with Sudanese government support may have reached 400,000.
“In every genocide, I find a hero I can relate to,” people who risked their lives—if not died—to save others, Cohen said.
“I ask myself, ‘Why am I interested in genocide?’ And one answer…is that it brings out the worst and the best in humanity: It’s the place where they intersect, the place where the darkest and the great light come together,” Cohen said.