Acts of Reconciliation

By Gabe Oppenheim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 5, 2008

In a way, it's a story of those two diamond engagement rings.

Laura Waters Hinson sits cross-legged on a plush beige sofa in the Discovery Channel building at the Silverdocs film festival, flashing a brilliant stone on each hand, explaining how she got here.

A couple of weeks ago, the 29-year-old won the top documentary prize at the Student Academy Awards in Los Angeles for "As We Forgive," her film about reconciliation in Rwanda between survivors of the 1994 genocide and its perpetrators. Previous Student Oscar winners include Trey Parker, Bob Saget and Spike Lee.

Hinson's film, begun as an MFA thesis at American University, captures victims' meetings with their freed attackers. A decade after the extermination of one in eight Rwandans, after the Hutus turned on the Tutsis and even some of their own, the two tribes had to learn to live together. (The government has released more than 60,000 convicts connected to the genocide to ease prison overcrowding, according to the BBC.)

In the film we meet Rosaria, who pulls up the hem of her dress to reveal mounds of raised scar tissue running down her legs. Hacked and beaten during the genocide, she now lives in a house built for her by Saveri, the man who killed her sister. Another survivor, Chantale, who lost 30 family members, meets John, the stooped gangly man who killed her father. He can't face her; her eyes are embers. "Remember all your old neighbors," she says. Yet the next day, Chantale begins working to build a house for another ex-con who confessed his crimes.

For Hinson, it was proof that the "transcendent filters through every aspect of life" and also that the world is really messed up.

"Reconciliation," she adds, her wide green eyes peering across the hall as she curls a finger into her drooping gold flip-flop, picking at the hard skin of her heel. "I think it's one of the most challenging subjects anyone can face. You choose to give up your right to hold that against him."

Him ? You wonder to whom it refers. But then it reminds you: She might not have tackled reconciliation without the rings. She might not have made the film without the breakup.

In 2001, she graduated from Furman University, where she double-majored in political science and communications. She then moved to Winston-Salem, N.C., for her boyfriend, a psychological counselor at the time. She took a lousy marketing job for a hospital corporation. He gave her the ring. Then he dumped her.

Hinson was devastated and embarrassed. She had to reimburse her bridesmaids and sell her gown on eBay. She lost a ton of money and gave the ring back. And then she decided to follow the "creative impulse running through my veins" and come to Washington for film school, in 2003.

She's at Silverdocs, talking to PBS execs, trying to get her film seen. It wasn't screened at the festival, but she's attending the conferences, with 650 other aspirants in the documentary biz. The rings glint. She bounces in her seat like the glowing child of serendipity, all tanned and blondified in a white, military-style linen tunic and black shorts. Her hair is short, her sleeves are rolled. Her lips pink, her earrings purplish.

She still seems like a little girl eager to sit at the adult table.

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