Professor and Rwandan refugee team up for film

There’s a phrase Scott Erlinder loves to use from President Kagame of Rwanda: “The way that you change things is you empty your neighbor’s rain barrel with a spoon because they’ll never notice it.”

Erlinder, an assistant professor of cinematography and visual effects in the colÎ_lege of computing and digital media at DePaul, has recently finished a film on the current state of affairs in Rwanda, with the goal to do precisely the opposite.

“We’re trying to take all those spoons and put it back into the rain barrel so peoÎ_ple can see what’s going on,” said Erlinder.

Erlinder was working on a film about Rwanda retelling what people already knew about the 1994 genocide and the reÎ_cent refugee crisis when he first met MuÎ_tuyimana Manzi through Barbara Harrell-Bond, the founder of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University.

“She put me in touch with Manzi and he had been working with a group called the Refugee Law Project,” said Erlinder.

Erlinder needed to videotape a conferÎ_ence in Kampala along with interviews of Rwandan refugees for the film. Since he did not speak Kinyarwanda and knew Manzi could speak and work from his loÎ_cation in Uganda, a new partnership was born.

“I decided to rent him a camera to cover both of those things and that was sort of the start of our collaboration,” said Erlinder.

Manzi and Erlinder began exchangÎ_ing emails and worked together for about a year and a half until Erlinder was forced to pause and consider something serious. The Rwandan government had tried to asÎ_sassinate Manzi because of his filming on three separate occasions.

“After the third incident I felt do I owe an obligation to this guy,” said Erlinder. “I mean he’s helped me. That happened in July of this year so in August my wife and I said we’ve got to get him out of there. It was obvious that if we left him in Uganda that something bad was going to happen.”

Erlinder and his wife talked to Manzi and asked him if he could go to school anyÎ_where, what he would want to study.

“He said he wanted to write for a newsÎ_paper or something like that and I said, ‘Well Manzi you realize what you’ve been doing is already being a journalist, in fact a video journalist,'” said Erlinder. “I saw a lot of talent in him.”

Erlinder and his wife then tried to bring him back to the United States from UganÎ_da, but Erlinder says now he still doesn’t even know how they made it happen.

Manzi did not have a passport because he was living as a refugee in Uganda. The only papers he had were from the UN RefÎ_ugee Agency, making it difficult to apply for visas as a technically ‘stateless’ person.

After much wrangling, Manzi managed to get an F-1 Student Visa and Erlinder seÎ_cured him a scholarship to get started at DePaul’s communication school.

“Until the day I was able to board the plane, until the day I was at O’Hare airÎ_port, it wasn’t really what was happenÎ_ing,” said Manzi, whose experience here as a 28-year-old undergraduate student Erlinder described as a being a ‘tornado’.

“Sometimes I was thinking, ‘I am dreaming… I am going to wake up,'” said Manzi.

Manzi’s journey to Chicago was one that often seemed impossible.

“He thinks God himself didn’t know for sure after his visa interview,” said Priya Yavagal, an editor who collaborated with Erlinder on the film. “Until you actually saw him get out of O’Hare it was like we had no idea what’s going on. It’s like he had to be here. So he’s here.”

The film “Stateless,” which was reÎ_cently completed, is a short 47 minute docÎ_umentary that brings light to the ‘cessation clause’ pending before the U.N. that could affect Manzi and other Rwandan refugees.

The clause that could pass in an upÎ_coming June 30 U.N. session requires agreement among African countries hostÎ_ing Rwandan expatriates. The cessation clause would remove refugee status for those who sought sanctuary between 1959 and 1998 in neighboring countries, declarÎ_ing those who refuse to return to Rwanda after the invocation as “stateless people,” according to the film’s website.

But Erlinder has hope the cessation might fail again.

“They’ve tried to institute this clause four times and it’s failed for one reason or another usually because the circumstances haven’t proven to be what the UN says they should be,” said Erlinder. “So they tried a different approach this time and refugees that were out of the country from 1959 to 1998… it’s this first group but we feel it’s sort of this nibbling approach – we’ll get these people and it’s a precedent to get the other ones to push the other ones back.”

The film describes the state of RwanÎ_dan refugees currently as being in a ‘huÎ_man limbo’ without nationality, yet forced to live in impoverished conditions and camps in neighboring countries.

In 2010, the New York Times reported that about 1,700 Rwandans seeking asyÎ_lum were driven to several trucks at gunÎ_point and taken back into Rwanda against their will from Kampala, Uganda.

Manzi himself had fled to Uganda in 2006, and feels that Rwanda is under a reÎ_gime and not a government.

“When you want the truth and justice in Rwanda, you are described as a genoÎ_cide denier,” said Manzi. “When you are fighting for democracy in Rwanda, they are going to frame you as someone [with] genocide ideology and someone threatenÎ_ing national security.”