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The Faces We Lost

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda claimed almost a million lives in just 100 days. The world stood by as men, women and children were being hacked to death by machetes. When the international community finally decided it was time to pay attention, it did so through memorable photographs of mutilated bodies and seas of nameless refugees.

But many Rwandans remember their loved ones through images of life, not death: a passport or I.D. card photo, an unguarded snap taken in the garden or a group portrait from a wedding or a baptism. The surviving images are precious objects, with so many destroyed and lost forever. A lot of people have only a solitary image of their loved ones. Many have none at all.

The Faces We Lost follows nine Rwandans (survivors, relatives of victims and professional memory-makers), who guide us through their stories and share their experiences, remembrance and images. It is the first documentary to explore the many functions of these priceless photographs, and one of the few films to engage with Rwandans as users of images, rather than simply their subjects.

These deeply personal stories are all marked by the terrible experience the genocide and its legacy have left on their owners. Each is also unique to the person who tells it.

Mama Lambert surrounds herself with the images of her loved ones. She has enlarged the smaller photographs and hung them proudly on the walls of her house. She commissioned an artist to turn others into paintings.

Adeline has copied the only surviving photo of her father on to her phone so she can carry him everywhere.

Painfully aware of how hard it is to find photos of those who perished in the genocide, Oliva spends the little money she has on getting herself photographed whenever she can – so that she’s sure some images will remain long after she’s gone.

Claudine could not save a single image of her beloved husband.

The Faces We Lost also explores the professional aspect of memory-making in Rwanda: The Genocide Archive (which holds thousands of original images donated by the victims’ relatives) and the Kigali Genocide Memorial (where many of the photographs are on public display). The people who work here are experts but also themselves inescapably touched by the genocide. Aline (the archivist who preserves the images) is haunted by a photo of a girl she’s never met but who was her age when the genocide happened. Claver, the Archive’s manager, spends his professional life surrounded by photographs and yet he didn’t manage to save a single one of his own parents.

As the private and the public meet and as each person recounts their relationship with the photographs they have or the wish they had, The Faces We Lost moves to paint a complex memorial landscape of contemporary Rwanda.

  • Piotr Cieplak
    Memory Cards (2015), Memory Places (2009)
  • Piotr Cieplak
    Memory Cards (2015), Memory Places (2009)
  • Clementine Dusabejambo
    Assistant Producer & Director
  • Naizi Nasser
    Director of Photography
  • Jak Payne
  • Ben Venfield
    Editor, Post-Production Supervisor, Sound Editor
  • Eugene Safali
    Sound Recordist
  • Ayubu Kasasa
    Fixer and Production Co-Ordinator
  • Emmanuel Habimana
    Original Music
  • Iba Ikuzwe
    Additional Photography
  • Jeanne D’Arc Cyuzozo
    Main Translation
  • Project Type:
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 6 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    June 16, 2017
  • Production Budget:
    10,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United Kingdom
  • Country of Filming:
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital HD (4K)
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • Cambridge Film Festival
    United Kingdom
    October 25, 2017
  • Rwanda Film Festival
    October 29, 2017
  • Africa-in-Motion
    United Kingdom
    October 28, 2017
  • World Film Festival
    March 23, 2018
    Estonian Premiere
    Official Selection
  • Festival International du Film PanAfricain de Cannes
    April 21, 2018
    French Premiere
    Official Selection
Director Biography - Piotr Cieplak

A director and writer, Piotr has worked on projects in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Argentina, Ukraine and the United Kingdom. He is the director of Memory Places (UK, 2009) – screened at Cambridge Film Festival, Thinking Futures Festival (Bristol, UK) and Cambridge African Film Festival – and Memory Cards (UK, 2015) – screened at Rwanda Film Festival, Africa-in-Motion (Edinburgh), Montecatini International Short Film Festival (Italy) and Afrykamera (Warsaw). Memory Cards won the Best Polish Lens Award at Afrykamera 2016. The Faces We Lost (UK, 2017) is Piotr’s first feature film.

Piotr has also written a book on Rwanda entitled Death, Image, Memory: the genocide in Rwanda and its aftermath in photography and documentary film (Palgrave, 2017). He lives in London.

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Director Statement

I first visited Rwanda as a PhD student in 2008. I went around the country with the Rwanda Film Festival team’s inflatable screen, showing movies in villages, stadiums, bus stations and market places. One of the most vivid memories from that trip is a visit to the small, dark room of photographs of genocide victims in the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Something touched me in that room. I’ve been back many times since then. But it took several years, a couple of short films and a book about memory in Rwanda before the idea for The Faces We Lost – the idea born in that small room full of photos of strangers – crystallised in my mind.

It’s hard to talk about memory in Rwanda without resorting to clichés and platitudes. Perhaps more so than in most places, memory is a complicated thing here. It’s painful. It’s horrid. It’s important. And often it’s political and increasingly politicised. At a very basic level, what I wanted to do with The Faces We Lost was to show Rwandans as consumers – not merely as subjects – of images. So many people around the world know the genocide visually through photographs of anonymous refugees, mutilated bodies, rows of skulls. Others have encountered the slaughter through blockbuster films such as Hotel Rwanda or Shooting Dogs, or documentaries that focus on the historical background to what and why happened in 1994. I wanted to do something different, and show that Rwandans remember too – in many complicated ways.

Accessing the topic through photographs wasn’t an obvious choice. Traditionally, many Rwandans remember and commemorate their dead through words, songs and poetry, not through images. Photography wasn’t a big thing before 1994. Even after the genocide, many people did not want to look at (or for) the pictures of their perished loved ones. But as time went by, surviving family members started seeking out these images.

The ways of finding the photographs are fascinating and heart-breaking. Not that many images existed in the first place and then so many were destroyed. This is one of the reasons why multiple photos we see in the film are from big family occasions like weddings and baptisms. Not only were these events more likely to be photographed but also they had a bigger chance of survival in someone else’s family album. The desire to have and cherish the photographs of genocide victims has also resulted in some shifting and doubling up of their initial functions. For example, many of the images have been taken from I.D. cards. Back in 1994, the cards stated the holder’s ethnicity and could be a passport to life or death. Now, they are used to remember, love and commemorate. The same image – such different functions and outcomes.

I had some formal red lines for The Faces We Lost. The lack of external “expert” narration that would “explain” the different experiences was one of them. The Faces We Lost was always going to be a film in which people told their own stories, in the language of their choice. It was also important to show the different facets of people’s relationship to “genocide” photographs. This is why the people in the film could be divided into those who are professionally connected to memory-making in Rwanda (through their work at the Kigali Genocide Memorial or the Rwanda Genocide Archive) and those who are not. This division is slightly fake as Claver, Aline, Serge and Paul, even though professionally involved with the images, have all, to varying degrees, experienced the personal loss that came with the genocide. At the same time, there’s no doubt that Mama Lambert, Adeline, Oliva, Claudine and Cecile talk about their images from a slightly different place – one not marked by professional debates about memory-making. I suppose what I really wanted to show is how these photographs operate slightly differently in the sterile and curated space of the Archive and the Memorial and the intimacy of the home, where they are touched, leafed through, re-ordered.

Two things returned time and again in my conversations about photographs with people in Rwanda. First was their ability to signify life as well as death. This is something that professional photography – concerned primarily with the documentation of suffering, violence and injury – often struggles to do. Second was the ambition to use these photographs to make sure that the genocide victims are remembered as individuals, people, rather than just a number. The latter especially is a tall order, particularly when we’re talking about strangers rather than family members or friends looking at the pictures. But I think it’s a worthy ambition.

The Faces We Lost also engages with the way the existence of these photographs is beginning to change due to technology. For many years, they were primarily physical objects. Now, they often live as digital copies – nesting on people’s phones (like Adeline’s) or social media accounts. This is part of a bigger, global trend, which, I believe will alter the long-established relationship between photography and memory.

The Faces We Lost is just one element of a larger project, kindly funded by the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust and Brunel University London. The project’s called ‘Personal archives of trauma and violence. Image and memory in the digital age – Argentina and Rwanda.’ It investigates the memorial and commemorative use of non-professional, private images (of genocide victims in Rwanda and of the Disappeared in Argentina).

This film has been many years in preparation but, really, was only made possible by the fact that so many people have agreed to share their stories and experiences (on and off screen). I am very thankful to them for this. Beyond presenting individual tales of resilience, pain and love, I hope it contributes to the mapping of the very complex memorial landscape of contemporary Rwanda.