A Day (or so) in the Life of Rwanda’s Riccardo Salvetti

by Kayode Faniyi

Ricardo Salvetti


The day, the part of it I’m willing to recount, ended as it began—with Mo Scarpelli somewhere in the picture. The Anbessa director was there at the media room at the Elangeni, all sunny behind her glasses, chatting excitedly to the boyishly cute Riccardo Salvetti in the cocoon they seemed to have weaved for themselves in the swirl of conversation that engulfed the room.

Hours later, under a Durban sky that had darkened much too quickly, she walked down Oliver Tambo Drive, from Marine Parade Garden Court where we were housed, past the Elangeni and onto the Maharani, where the closing dinner of the 2019 Durban Film Mart was holding.

Salvetti was walking down Oliver Tambo Drive too, caught between the rapid fire of Scarpelli’s American English and the more manageable cadence of my Nigerian one. I walked between them, conducting the conversation and briefly wondering how interesting it was that Scarpelli rhymed with Salvetti. Anbessa, a documentary set in Ethiopia, had been optioned for an unprecedented three-broadcast run on RTE, the Franco-German media juggernaut—I’d successfully deduced the Alsatian origin of a stunned RTE commissioning editor on the ride from King Shaka International Airport when I arrived Durban. Moving forward, Scarpelli, I learnt, was making a meta film about a Venezuelan director.

While that evening’s meeting was mostly by chance, the earlier meeting was entirely by design. A meeting had been arranged for Salvetti and I at 1pm that day. At 1pm, I was some way away from the Elangeni, pursuing happiness in a form that shall remain undisclosed. I arrived twenty minutes late, propelled forward by the cheerleading urgency of my Uber driver.

Was I sure what to expect? For one, I’d spent one hour talking to Jahmil Qubeka that very morning, and wasn’t looking forward to sitting around another smooth-faced Cosa Nostra enforcer. I kid. Would Riccardo be the dusky man who steals your girlfriend one nanosecond into a smoky stare? Would he repeat his name like a song (like, my name is Vincenzo Roccara Squarcialupi Brancaleone)?


Rwanda’s four-year-old civil war took an even more morbid dimension when the plane carrying Rwandan president Juvenal Habriyamana was shot down. Over the next 100 days, one of the ugliest episodes in human history ensued. In those hundred days, Tutsis were killed at roughly twice the rate Jews were solved away during the four or so years of the Holocaust. Rwanda, tellingly, was inspired by these events.

By far the most popular representation of the Rwandan genocide is Hotel Rwanda. Hotel Rwanda follows the now-discredited heroics of Paul Rusesabagina, manager of Hotel des Mille Collines. For Salvetti, the film was great, yes, but it was also an albatross. If he followed the same path, his film was bound to pale in comparison. Thankfully, Rwanda had begun its artistic life as a stage play written and performed around Italy by the duo of Mara Moschini and Marco Cortesi. That original theatricality offered Salvetti an in into representing another story of the genocide. This in, a melding of stage and cinema, sat well with Salvetti’s affinity for the surreal. “I kept Mara and Marco as the lead actors in the movie as in the stage play. So you had the theatre show inside the movie, like a true story inside a true story, with two white people transfigured into two Rwandan survivors.


Viewed through surrealist lenses, Salvetti’s decision to transfigure Mara and Marco into Rwandans is uncontroversial. Not everyone wears those lenses however; not even mermaids are immune from the controversies about the fidelity of presentation every new day seems to now birth.

I’d already worked out that the transfiguration was a device—one that had been deemed necessary to compel empathy. In my review of Rwanda, I’d written that “[l]ed by Salvetti, Mara and Marco materialize the genocide before their European audiences by a bodily investment in the story. Europe may have averted its eyes from Rwanda, but with their physical embodiment of the film’s lead characters, the duo invites its presumably white primary audience into empathy.”

The surrealism I could fathom. But true belief in the approach would have required me to also fathom C.J. Obasi transfiguring Jimi Solanke into a more ordinary Oskar Schindler in a Holocaust story. “In Italy, in this moment, there is a closed mind,” Salvetti said to me. “They do not want to know what happened in Africa or any other part of the world. They think only for the Europa.” Salvetti’s approach is corroboration. If Salvetti is not infantilizing these audiences, then his approach is also an indictment of the Italian imagination that requires whiteness to unravel blinding metaphors.


Rwanda opens to Mara and Marco mired in a drama of civil inertia. Mara is convinced of the importance of staging the play, but Marco is wavering. Eventually, Mara’s impassioned pleas will win the day, and Marco will do the needful.

Further into the film, the same drama of civil inertia plays out between Marco’s alter ego Augustin, a Hutu husband, and Jolande, his endangered Tutsi wife. Augustin is caught between the Hutu imperative befouling the airwaves and his filial duty to his wife. To compound Augustin’s dilemma, his wife insists he has an even larger duty to humanity. Her remarkable steel in the face of mortal danger eventually galvanizes her hesitant husband.

Was this parallelism Salvetti’s invention? He flashes me his characteristic smile, delighted, apparently, that I have uncovered and deciphered a specific syntax of his screen grammar. Yes, it was one of the ways he had converted the play into cinema language. Europeans take more easily to comedy or the European show. Being neither, it was difficult to find a theatre that would take the play on. And yes, there had been a conflict between Mara and Marco about what direction the play should take.


Some of the film’s cast were Rwandans living in Italy, Salvetti told me. Many of them, babies at the time, had been whisked away from Rwanda at the onset of the genocide by an Italian association that brought them to Italy. Now safe, they were adopted by Italian families. The circumstances of their uprooting meant they were completely ignorant of those very circumstances. For them, acting in the film was a way to process the unfathomable.

One of them asked to play a militiaman, a physical embodiment with which he sought to facilitate his understanding of the nature of 1994’s evil. How did a family turn against itself? How did your easygoing neighbor suddenly come to thirst so lustily for your blood?

This decision gave me another reason to question Salvetti’s justifications for transfiguring Mara and Marco into Rwandans. Why were they the film’s heroes? Was the film’s unsettling last image not also unsettling because it called to mind white-saviour complex? Beyond self-congratulation, what is there to learn from the heroism of Cecile and Augustin? In Europe today, the sun of intolerance is directly overhead and casts no shadows. Salvetti has chosen to use whiteness to shine a light on intolerance when what Europe needs is to see its grotesque reflection in the mirror.

When I ask him if the Rwandan genocide is not too long ago to have any real impact today, Salvetti offers up a defence. “If I tell a story about today,” he said, “a lot of people already have their opinions. They have no opinions about an unfamiliar story, and so that’s useful. The story is unfamiliar but the situation today is similar. In my opinion it is stronger this way, because they are compelled to think and at the end, everyone sees the necessity of doing something good for the other. If I only realise a movie about immigration, then a lot of people would not come to watch.”

He has tried to use distance to compel contemplation, yes, but was he not worried that the audience might be unable to negotiate the present implications of that distance? The tendency of Europe to see Africa as apart I left unsaid. “I was present in a lot of screenings in Italy so that at the end, I can help the audience elaborate those ideas.” But he won’t always be present. “It is possible that someone who watches the movie doesn’t at the end think that it is present, yes, but I don’t know. The response at those screenings were really emotional and they clearly thought about the ideas in the film. Before I prodded them, many had begun to say the fear of difference had to be stopped. The Rwandan genocide started from difference, but they’d lived together much longer.”


If Italy is shaped like a boot, then the city of Forli is located near the middle of its shaft. No famous footballers hail from Forli—not yet, but it is the city of Mara, Marco and Salvetti. And though their orbits had always overlapped ever so lightly, they had never worked together till Mara and Marco decided they wanted to give their stage play a more material existence.

Rwanda, Salvetti tells me, was “realized” at a reservation some fifteen minutes away from their homes by road. “We shot the film in Forli because our budget was so small we couldn’t think to go to Rwanda. And a lot of people who watched our movie thought we were actually in Rwanda.”

Writing Rwanda’s screenplay presented an interesting challenge to Salvetti. He easily admits it was a mistake to watch the stage play as much as he did—it sucked him in so much he found it difficult to translate it into cinema language. He also had to find a cinematic way to keep something of the theatre and keep Mara and Marco as lead actors. Three months after receiving the text of the play, he finally overcame these difficulties.

The result is a brilliant first feature. Mara and Marco’s impassioned stage narrations are melded smoothly with faithful dramatisations. The film keeps faith with its theatrical provenance by embracing the sparse detailing of a theatrical set. It follows Hotel Rwanda’s example by sidestepping the grisly realism with which such films can be obsessed, proceeding instead by suggestion. “I wanted to keep this atmosphere where you understand what happened in Rwanda but not see all the blood. Your brain can complete the picture.”


When I run into Salvetti that evening, he has broken away from working on the storyboard of Il Muro, his latest collaboration with Mara and Marco. At the interview earlier in the day, his eyes had lit up in pleasant surprise when I mentioned Il Muro to him. Out came il sorriso, Salvetti’s 200-watt smile. He gleefully filled me in on the details no amount of determined sleuthing on Italian internet can unearth. First, yes, he would be directing Il Muro too.

Il Muro—The Wall, in English—is another piece of Mara and Marco’s beloved civil theatre and traces the evolution of the Berlin Wall through the episodic stories of four central characters. These are as much stories of civic cowardice as they are of spunk and daring. Shooting is imminent, a matter of days. He will keep some of Rwanda’s method but this one will be different. Mara and Marco will lead as usual, but Salvetti will throw fiction and documentary into his earlier mix of theatre and cinema. If he has one fear about Il Muro, it is that of finding the right balance to walk the tightrope between the multiplicity of languages and styles.

Like Rwanda, Il Muro is a metaphor for the present. “We have a lot of walls inside us, and like Rwanda, the fire of the other allows us realise what to do. When the Berlin Wall fell, people said everything was finished. But now, there are more than 60 walls—much bigger than the Berlin Wall.