Act of Kindness
dir. Sven Pannell and Costa Botes
Act of Kindness is a detective story that cracks along at a healthy pace at the same time as cracking open the intricacies and nuances of compassion given and received.
Rwanda has had its fair share of western attention over the last two decades. It’s been twenty-three years since the genocide in this central African nation and yet the country is still characterised in the media by this tragedy. Act of Kindness is a documentary set in Rwanda in 2007 that sheds light on a people that have been rocked to the core of society and have prevailed despite it all. The directors, Sven Pannell and Costa Botes, have revealed a Rwanda that bears the scars of tragedy and yet has grown to become so much more.
As the filmmakers say, “Act of Kindness is a true story about a young New Zealander’s search amongst the streets and shanties of Rwanda for a homeless, crippled beggar who years earlier had helped him out of a dangerous predicament. Hopeful of repaying his debt of gratitude to this unlikely Samaritan, he pursued a seemingly hopeless task, tracking down one man amongst ten million – a man he only knew by a single name … ‘Johnson’.”
The young New Zealander at the heart of the story is one of the directors, Sven Pannell. The film sets the stage by telling Pannell’s story of his first experience in Rwanda in 1999. After a dangerous encounter on the road through Burundi from which Pannell barely escaped with his life he finds himself in Rwanda without any money or support. It’s late at night and he is in the middle of the nearly deserted bus station when a street beggar named Johnson saw that Pannell was in trouble and offered to take him to a homeless shelter.
Over the next four nights Pannell got to know Johnson and the other men at the homeless shelter. As they exchanged stories Pannell heard tales of war and loss that have stayed with him forever. Each day Pannell would try to find a free ride out of Rwanda and each day Johnson would buy him a meal. After just a few days in Rwanda, Pannell was offered a lift to his destination, Uganda, that was leaving immediately. Not being able to say thank you and goodbye to Johnson is a regret that Pannell had to live with.
Almost ten years later Pannell was in Rwanda on another project and he determined to stay on to try to find Johnson to say thank you. He found Fabrice Kirwa, a local who was interested in becoming a filmmaker, to help him and started his search.
Let the mystery begin. There are twists and turns, red herrings and near misses. At one point Pannell ends up in the hospital with food poisoning and almost has to give up on his search. As in any good detective story, the detective’s character is what it’s really about. Remarkably, in a film that Pannell shot himself, all of his flaws and strengths are on show. His ridiculous optimism and faith in other people lead him into dangerous situations but also point him towards his goal. His warm personality and his amazing ability to authentically connect with people help him uncover fresh leads. It is also what makes this documentary so watchable. Pannell opens himself to the camera in a way that is at once disarming and compelling.
The film is not technically flawless. Pannell had never shot a feature length documentary before he decided to capture this search on camera. His assistant Fabrice was invaluable in helping Pannell navigate his way through Rwandan society but he wasn’t an experienced camera operator. As you might expect much of the camerawork is rough.
To me, it didn’t matter. This isn’t a highly polished documentary about an important topic of international significance. It is simply the story of a man who was granted a favour and who is trying to say thank you. The rough production values only add to the authenticity of the experience. Botes, who co-directed and edited the film, worked hard to find the best way to tell the story. At one point in the development of the film, Botes and Pannell thought that the best way to get this on screen was going to be a dramatic retelling of Pannell’s tale. I’m so glad that they stuck with the original footage with Pannell as both hero and antagonist.
I won’t tell you whether or not Pannell achieved his goal but I have to tell you that I did find the conclusion very moving. Documentaries can sometimes be focused on facts and figures and capturing the truth of what happened. Act of Kindness presents the story faithfully but also has a wonderful ebb and flow that speaks to something emotional rather than intellectual. As this is a film that celebrates compassion and the power of thank you, I’d like to say thank you to the filmmakers for bringing this story to the world.