Recently, I attended a genocide conference that included a film called Beyond the Deadly Pit, produced and directed by Rwandan genocide survivor Gilbert Ndahayo. It documents confronting his father's killer during gacaca, the traditional court used to try "lesser" perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. Ndahayo said, "If one wants to be healed from the sickness, he must talk about it to the world. For 12 years, I lived with the remains of about 200 unpeaceful dead in my parents' backyard." I found the film so profoundly moving that I could not rise from my chair. Even now, writing this, I cannot prevent the tears. During the post-film q&a, I asked Ndahayo if making the film had facilitated healing. He said simply, "No."

And yet, he made the film, and he continues to make films. Why? Why does anyone who has lived through unspeakable horrors decide to shape these events into art? Why do those of us who have not lived them still feel compelled to give them voice? Perhaps the answer is that it is not a choice; it feels as necessary as drawing breath or putting one foot in front of the other. In TerezĂ­n concentration camp, prisoners were allowed artistic expression, and reading the testimony of survivors, one sees over and over that artistic expression provided nourishment, strength and hope. It was the one form of defiance left to them. In Auschwitz, prisoners risked execution to document their lives.

At the end of my conference session, a Rwandan survivor approached me to say that she belonged to a group of women who were writing their experiences, and they wanted help to write them in English. At that same session, there had been a genocide denier who attempted to disrupt the talks. Seeing the bright light of defiance in this survivor's eyes, it occurred to me that artistic expression is fundamentally a form of survival. Perhaps it cannot "cure a sickness," but it is a way to perpetuate life, and as such, to create beauty out of the horror.

-- Naomi Benaron, author of Running the Rift

Browse an excerpt from Running the Rift and read an interview with Naomi Benaron about the book.

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The above was first published in Shelf Awareness. It is reproduced with permission of the author and Shelf Awareness

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