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Acts of Reconciliation
A Student Filmmaker Turns Her Lens on Rwanda, And Finds a Personal Truth Reflected Back at Her

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.

"She wanted to do things we thought she wasn't old enough for," her mom, Nina Waters, recalls by phone from Destin, Fla. "She was interested in everything." Growing up in the Panhandle, Hinson pranced around filming tableaux with her friend Ashley. They had one campy horror scene featuring a body falling from a window and a shot of the lifeless corpse on the ground.

Hinson also had the director's impulse for choreographing others. She collected costumes from thrift shops and played little old men herself; one Halloween she dressed football players in gowns. She hosted dinner parties, requesting that invitees don formalwear.

"We were the cooks," her mother recalls. "We'd wait on them -- they'd be smoking their fake cigarettes." Hinson was elected president of Fort Walton Beach High School for three years.

She's religious now but wasn't always. Raised Episcopalian, Hinson says she didn't get "serious" about it until after Furman, when she joined the Anglican Mission in the Americas. That group broke away from the Episcopal Church -- rejecting its liberal reforms, including the acceptance of gay clergy -- under the auspices of Rwanda's church.

The link led her local congregation to plan a trip to Rwanda in 2005. She didn't sign up to go. She was frenzied, searching for a suitable thesis topic. But one congregant dropped out and a pastor urged Hinson to take the spot. When she got there, she knew she had found her film. She came back and started researching, planning to shoot in the summer of 2006.

She was so interested in the topic that she hosted a dinner at Armand's Pizza on Capitol Hill for a Rwandan bishop who was working to facilitate reconciliation. There she met a fellow American University student who was also planning on filming in Rwanda in June. He and his friend agreed to shoot her movie, if she'd provide room and board.

They also brought a Canon camera to add to the Panasonic MiniDV the university had lent her. She found the translator, Emmanuel Kwizera, through the Internet mailing list of a Ugandan missionary who had just visited Rwanda. Kwizera proved crucial to earning the trust of victims and killers, especially since he was a survivor himself who knew four languages.

"He would go in first," Hinson says, "elicit stories and then ask whether they'd be involved."

In 30 days, without permits, which Rwanda may or may not require -- "it's not clear" -- Hinson filmed 55 hours of footage. She cut it down to 53 minutes on her Mac. Her Emmy-winning composers charged her $8,000 for a score that would usually cost twice as much. Two families from her church gave her $18,000. Mia Farrow lent her voice to the narration, after Hinson was introduced to her through the staff of a Virginia congressman. The Rwandan president agreed to an interview on the last day of shooting. Her total cost came to $25,000.

"This film typically would've cost at least a couple hundred thousand dollars to make," Hinson says. "It'll never be like this ever again. I know that, but people want to help when you're a student."

The story ultimately appealed to Hinson for its reversal of the genre's cliches. Instead of being a tale of African ruin and our reluctance to help, it was a "tremendously hopeful" picture of people learning to forgive in circumstances, she says, in which we never could. Hinson liked to believe she herself had learned something.

Two weeks after leaving Rwanda, in August 2006, the belief was tested. Her ex-fiance called, 4 1/2 years after their breakup. "I feel kinda crazy," she recalls him saying. "And I still love you."

Tom is the guy's name. Today he says of the breakup: "I was just terrified of that level of commitment. I had come from a family that had kind of a bad marriage."

He reconsiders.

"Ninety percent of it was me just being a very lame guy. A child in a man's body. Just a guy with a lot to learn."

He visited her a month later. He had gone to a nondenominational seminary in those silent intervening years, studied to become a priest and all the while "worked with a lot of trauma victims, a lot of people who were recovering from some pretty hard stuff, rape victims."

"I dealt a lot in the language of forgiveness," he adds.

Tom had kept the first ring all that time. "I couldn't get rid of it. It was that weird kind of remote possibility sense that maybe if I ever get my act together . . . ."

He gave it to her, and a second one. He bent down on one knee in the old-fashioned way and asked the question. Not of nuptials, not at first. There was a more pressing matter.

"I said, 'Laura, do you forgive me?' And she said, 'Yes.' And getting married was almost the denouement, the anticlimax."

Today Tom Hinson and Laura Waters Hinson live in the District, where several documentary companies are based and where he pastors at two Anglican churches. Laura graduated from American last year, and the Student Oscar got her thinking about moving to Los Angeles. "It depends on what Laura wants to do in her career," says the man who gave and took away and gave again.

"Our marriage," she says, "is built on forgiveness."

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