Documentary Review: 'Narratives of Modern Genocide'
This gripping and well-structured documentary recounts horrific crimes of the past, motivated by the same kind of hate we're dealing with today.
As 2020 made clear with the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, racism is still alive and well. While many would like to believe that we've left this kind of irrational hate behind, we're still a long way off from eradicating bigotry from our society--if such a thing is even possible. That's one of the unspoken themes of Narratives of Modern Genocide, a documentary that focuses on the stories of two genocidal attack survivors. While just about everyone knows about the Holocaust, this documentary centers on two lesser-known genocides: the 1970s Cambodian genocide committed by the communist regime known as "The Khmer Rouge" and the massacres that marked the 1993-2005 Burundi Civil War.
The survivors in question are former U.S. ambassador Sichan Siv and Burundian long-distance runner/motivational speaker Gilbert Tuhabonye. Narratives of Modern Genocide doesn't hold much back as it recounts the unspeakable cruelties committed in Cambodia and Burundi, and both Siv and Tuhabonye are poignantly captivating as they give their personal accounts of the atrocities. Their stories are accompanied by well-drawn minimalist illustrations, which add an appealing aesthetic to the documentary. And in the case of Tuhabonye's heartbreaking retelling, the disturbing drawings make visual the brutal reality of what transpired in Burundi.
And as we're told more details about these genocides and what lead to them being carried out, it's more than a little eerie to be reminded of how much history has repeated itself. The Cambodian massacres and actions of the Khmer Rouge are comparable to the Holocaust and the Nazis' "just following orders" mentality. In a more current parallel, the regime's mantra of "take it back to zero" (year zero) instantly brought to mind Donald Trump's infamous "Make America Great Again" slogan and the implications behind it. Most of Narratives of Modern Genocide doesn't really focus on this angle as much as it could've, instead devoting its time to letting Siv and Tuhabonye tell their stories. While it would've been nice to see the documentary discuss such connections further, the similarities are fairly easy to see and the stories of these resilient men are more than compelling enough to justify the screentime they're given.
On a technical level, there are a few mild issues that--while noticeable--don't take away from the documentary's impact. Narratives of Modern Genocide gets off to a weird start after its prologue opening, with a shaky camera and extended montage of just following Sichan Siv at his police volunteer job. Later on, we also get some similar "day-in-the-life" type scenes of Gilbert Tuhabonye as he does youth volunteer work and discusses his athletic career as a runner. But in the context of the documentary as a whole, these slightly bizarre scenes have their place. After surviving such savage acts of cruelty, seeing Siv and Tuhabonye leading fulfilling lives and working to make the world a better place is an uplifting sight. In more bothersome technical snafus, there are a handful of moments where the combination of subpar sound quality and heavy accents render some scenes hard to understand. There's also a scene towards the end of the film where Tuhabonye's narration briefly plays over an audible home video. It's such a brief and baffling moment that it feels like an editing blooper rather than some conscious decision.
Apart from these bearable technical issues, Narratives of Modern Genocide makes for an engaging look at some of the darker parts of world history. In a time still plagued by unjust hate and prejudice, it's crucial to remember the uglier parts of history and strive to halt the repeating cycle of violence. The tales of survival told by Siv and Tuhabonye may be hard to listen to, and the same goes for the grisly details of what countless others had to endure. But these are stories that need to be told, as acknowledging and addressing such travesties for what they are is the only way to prevent them from happening again. With engrossing first-person accounts and a consistent pace when it comes to the informational segments, Narratives of Modern Genocide is a well-made documentary that's sure to tug at your heartstrings while educating your mind.
Score: 8.5 out of 10 timber trucks.