Act of Kindness
Sven Pannell, Rwandans
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The film’s heartfelt premise does manage to shine through its feeble execution.
Kigali, Rwanda. A city that, in the 1990s, experienced more tragedy and violence than any place on earth should have to bear, with the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi population by the Hutu-led government resulting in over a million deaths in just three months, leaving thousands more Rwandans disabled, orphaned or widowed. In the years following, as the nation put itself back together, there was still division and unrest, but sometimes you can make a difference with a small act of kindness.
Act of Kindness is a New Zealand documentary shot and presented by Sven Pannell, a man who managed to escape certain death in Rwanda in 1999 when his bus was taken hostage. Managing to escape to Kigali, he met a man named Johnson, whose family had been torn apart by the genocide 5 years prior, and, as Sven spent his days attempting to find a seat on a bus leaving town, every evening Johnson would split his begging earnings with him. When Sven abruptly had the opportunity to leave, he never got to say goodbye and thank Johnson for his kindness, and eight years later he has returned to find Johnson and thank him, making this documentary along the way.
For such a heart-warming idea, Act of Kindness doesn’t quite hit the emotional beats necessary to compel you to a story like this, instead trundling along as Pannell goes round in circles around Kigali. The entire first half of the film visiting city officials to gain permission for flyers and radio shows; the other half spent fielding calls, and every mind-numbing civic hurdle he must complete makes the film even drier, dragging out its short runtime and removing the stakes, lessening any impact the swift ending may have had. Only Pannell’s complaints about everything from cold showers to insects to endless phone calls all through the night (what do you expect when you hand out your personal number on national radio?) make his personal experience interesting, but this certainly doesn’t endear you to his journey when he is surrounded by amputees and complains about mosquitos.
What is compelling about Act of Kindness, however, are the small stories it discovers of survivors of the Rwandan genocide, the men and women who help him along the way and, in doing so, share their experiences with the world. Pannell’s ten year-old footage is a startling reminder of how little things have changed, how so many years after the genocide people are still dealing with its effects, but it also reminds us how everyday good deeds can change someone’s life. The film’s heartfelt premise does manage to shine through its feeble execution, with a surprising ending that reminds us to look through the bad to find the good.