NEW YORK – The tall thin man strode to the stage at the Tribeca Film Festival and fielded a few questions about one of the main subjects of the documentary just screened — himself: Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
The president's star turn Monday night before a chic crowd in lower Manhattan was less surprising considering it was the world premiere of a documentary that portrays Kagame, who is up for re-election in August, in a heroic light. After the 88-minute film, "Earth Made of Glass," ended, filmgoers welcomed him with a standing ovation.
"When you want reconciliation and justice at the same time, they tend to conflict," he replied to one question. "That's what happens every day in our country."
Kagame also pledged to continue cooperating with his nation's former sworn enemy, Congo. The two nations teamed up for a joint operation last year against the extremist Rwandan Hutu rebels who fled to eastern Congo, after Kagame's rebel army ended the 1994 genocide.
Rwanda has, together with neighbor Uganda, twice invaded Congo — in 1996 and 1998. During each invasion Rwanda said it was chasing down the Rwandan militias. The second invasion sparked a five-year, six-nation war in Congo.
Recently, Congo President Joseph Kabila told the United Nations he wants the world body to start withdrawing all peacekeeping troops, ahead of Kabila's re-election bid next year. Kabila's government, however, has since struggled to assert its control in the east and has had difficulty building effective institutions and integrating former fighters into a national army.
"I wish the Congolese the best for their country," Kagame said. "We are trying to work with the Congolese. ... We are going to continue working together in our region to have peace, not only for Rwanda but for Congo as well, and for the rest of the region."
Kagame's Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu extremists after the 1994 genocide in which half a million people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus, died. Critics of his government argue, however, that the ruling party has used the concept of genocide ideology to discredit detractors and defeat political opponents.
An opposition leader, Victoire Umuhoza Ingabire, was arrested last week on charges of collaborating with terrorists and "promoting genocide ideology." Her party says she is being harassed for challenging Kagame. Also last week, Human Rights Watch said the Rwandan government's decision to deny a work visa to its researcher in Kigali demonstrates a pattern of increasing restrictions on free expression ahead of August's presidential elections.
"In the last few weeks, we've seen a real crackdown on critics," said Georgette Gagnon, the Africa director for Human Rights Watch. "The Rwandan government is doing everything it can to silence independent voices before the elections."
For years, Kagame has sparred with France over an alleged French role in the genocide, with Rwanda's government and genocide survivor organizations often accusing France of training and arming the Hutu militias and former government troops who led the genocide.
In 1998, a French parliamentary panel absolved France of responsibility in the slaughter. But in February, Nicolas Sarkozy became the first French president to visit Rwanda since the genocide and said those responsible for the killings should be found and punished, including any who might be residing in France.
Filmmaker Deborah Scranton's documentary prominently adopts the view of Kagame's 2008 report into what she calls "the French government's hidden complicity" in the genocide.
Also interwoven into the film is the gripping story of how 47-year-old Jean Pierre Sagahutu, a fixer for international news media organizations, tracked down the villagers who years earlier had permitted his father, a physician, to be killed and buried naked in a field beside a road block, simply for being an ethnic Tutsi.
Sagahutu, who takes his children along on parts of the journey, exposing them to the difficulties of balancing justice with peace and forgiveness, also was on hand for the film's premiere.
The film grew out of a chance dinner conversation two years ago between Scranton and Kagame, who she said had "inspired within me and my whole crew an incredible vision of a path to peace that I think the world could take a lesson from."