They Smiled

[written in Nottingham, England, while in graduate school]


Tonight my friend Marky and I went to another one of the humanitarian rights films on campus. The highly emotional and difficult-to-watch movie Shooting Dogs (or Beyond the Gates in the States) played tonight. We walked over there in the pouring rain and were consequently soaked by the time we got to the “theatre,” and I was initially worried that being so wet would distract me from the movie. This turned out not to be a concern at all; the raw tragedy and blatant injustices of the (largely true) story demanded complete attention.

Scenes of hatred, of apathy, of divisiveness, of brutality, unfolded before my eyes. People have lived through this; movies based on true events remove the “It’s not real” mentality we try to resort to when a story gets too painful. It was real and it is real, and it makes me sick.

I kept staring down at my hands during the movie, at first to spare myself from watching some of the particularly heart-wrenching scenes, but later because they kept attracting my attention. A pair of hands: two palms and ten fingers. What can they do? Honestly, what can my two hands do that will actually make a difference when people die by machetes and massacres? How will my hands change anything about that situation?

The minutes passed, each burdened with the weight of horror inflicted upon humanity. I could feel my once seemingly-endless-supply of hope depleting, trickling out of my head and heart–and hands–into a world where it does no good after all. Even when two characters proclaimed statements that were probably meant to offer assurance or some sort of comfort (“Find fulfillment in everything” and “We are so fortunate to have been given this time. We must make the most of it”), I felt wary of people and our apparent ability to simply annihilate one another. I agreed with what the characters said, but again, wondered how much it mattered.

At the end of the movie, credits cited members of the staff and cast who had been personally affected by the genocide. Some people lost all their siblings, or a number of extended family, or narrowly escaped death themselves. Trauma had bull-dozed itself into their lives, loss had seeped in from all sides . . . and yet still they smiled. In each and every photograph of these survivors, they smiled. They smiled honest and true smiles, the kind that start deep in your soul before revealing themselves on your face. With each pair of upturned lips that danced on the screen, I felt my hope replenishing itself. I was especially grateful to an acquaintance of mine, David, who made a comment at the end of the movie.

“I’ve been to Rwanda since then,” he told us. “And it’s the most beautiful country, with the most amazing people, I have ever been to.”

With just that sentence, David affirmed to me the truth that I had been fervently hoping to believe: that the smiles of these survivors attested to their mind-boggling resilience and strength of character to love in the aftermath of dreams shattered. There’s reason to hope after all.



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