A new Canadian documentary about a Rwandan production of Romeo and Juliet is uniting 20-something Rwandans and Canadians.

Monday marks 20 years since the start of the Rwandan genocide and Halifax filmmaker Ben Proudfoot is in Kigali with his largely Canadian crew to wrap filming on his documentary Kigali/Verona.

"The themes and sort of salient moments and characters and aspects of Romeo and Juliet obviously are a very interesting juxtaposition against what happened in Rwanda in 1994," Proudfoot told CBC News.

"In no way is it identical — the Rwandan genocide was a genocide. Romeo and Juliet is about two families who are fighting each other ... but what is pertinent is the theme of the play, which is love conquering violence," he said.

'We know very little, as Westerners, about what's going on in Rwanda and my hope with this film is to try and change that ... People know the genocide happened there, [but] they don't know what modern Rwanda looks like.' - Ben Proudfoot, filmmaker

Still in production, the documentary follows professor Andrew Garrod, co-founder of Youth Bridge Global, who has for decades mounted student Shakespearean productions and used drama to inspire cultural bridge-building and to transform young people.

The former Dartmouth College prof and longtime New Brunswick teacher has staged multi-ethnic, multilingual versions of the Bard of Avon's plays in the Marshall Islands, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and — last summer — in Rwanda with college-aged Hutus and Tutsis.

Thanks to a serendipitous, last-minute invitation from a friend, Proudfoot tagged along to shoot Garrod's eight-week production. The tight timetable included just a few weeks of casting and rehearsals through the eventual performances.

Ben Proudfoot

Nova Scotian director and producer Ben Proudfoot and Ottawa-born cinematographer David Bolen spend time with a young Rwandan family. (Norm Bolen)

"We know very little, as Westerners, about what's going on in Rwanda and my hope with this film is to try and change that," said the filmmaker who is now based in Los Angeles.

"People know the genocide happened there, [but] they don't know what modern Rwanda looks like."

Proudfoot discovered much complexity among the current generation of young Rwandans, something he hopes Kigali/Verona will convey as well.

"[One participant says] 'We've been reconciled. We're a happy people: we love each other,' and then we have [actress Tete, who portrays Juliet, saying] 'You know, that's not exactly the truth. We're not totally reconciled and anybody who says we are is a hypocrite.'"

A new generation

Many of the young actors and participants were just toddlers at the start of the genocide and "they're now coming into a critical-thinking age where they're sort of seeing the world, seeing and understanding how the world sees them when they announce that they're Rwandan," he continued.

"[They have a] desire to build a new image of Rwanda and be a person on the world stage that is not just a victim of a genocide that happened 20 years ago, but somebody who has merit in their own right as a musician or an actor or an academic or whatever it is they have aspirations being — and that's something I can relate to as a young person."


In this scene from the documentary Kigali/Verona, two young actors rehearse a scene from a Rwandan production of Romeo and Juliet. (Breakwater Studios)

Despite coming from opposite sides of the world and being raised in very different circumstances, it was this yearning to break away from the past and rise up as a new generation that bound together the Rwandan actors and the young Canadian documentary crew, led by the 23-year-old filmmaker.

"What came forward was not what was different about us, but what was similar about us given all these differences."

Proudfoot and his team will complete shooting final visuals for Kigali/Verona in the coming days before returning home for post-production. Through his company, Breakwater Studios, he is raising funds to finish the documentary, which he hopes to complete for the early 2015 film festival season.

Kigali/Verona doc

Kigali/Verona documentary cinematographer Dough Burgdorff and sound recordist Sean Higgins capture everyday Rwandans in April 2014. (Norm Bolen)