The Day God Walked Away

Le Jour où Dieu est parti en voyage

Paru le Autres formats

[English] [français]

April 1994, Rwanda. In the first days of the genocide, the Westerners flee the country. Before being evacuated, a Belgian family hides their children’s nanny, Jacqueline, in the false ceiling of their house. Despite the terror, Jacqueline comes out of hiding to find her children who had been left alone. The young mother discovers their lifeless bodies among the corpses. Driven from her village, hunted like an animal, she takes refuge in the forest.
First feature by Philippe Van Leeuw, The Day God Walked Away was shot in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda and the region of Lake Kivu near the border of Congo and Burundi. The cinematographer Marc Koninckx granted us an interview about this "outdoor set piece".

How did you meet Philip and how did you two choose to work together ?
I didn’t know him at all. Philippe was timing the film God’s Offices at Hoverlord in Liege, where I myself had just finished timing Johnny Mad Dog. He saw some of the images, and he called me.

What were your artistic premises ?
From the outset, the position of Philip was very clear. He didn’t want to shoot in HD and had a clear idea of the format : scope. I proposed shooting in Super 35, 3 perf, to be able to use spherical lenses, allowing us to have more aperture, lighter gear and therefore be more adapted to the extreme shooting conditions that we would find in Africa.

For my cameras I chose a Moviecam MKII and an Arri BLIII as a backup camera. In the end I used the BLIII more often than expected, especially for all the handheld shots, as it is more compact and better balanced. For lenses, I chose the Zeiss Ultra Prime series.

Philippe also wanted a fairly sober, realistic and naturalistic image. It’s pretty complicated. When you walk around in Rwanda everything is beautiful, the rain forest, the lakes, the landscape of a thousand hills. So you very quickly slip into a postcard feel.

After shooting tests between Fuji and Kodak, I decided to shoot in Fuji ISO 400 (Pastel). This negative is more sensitive to green than Kodak and therefore has more details in this spectrum. It is also less sensitive to blue, so that I could avoid skies that were too blue, and falling into the "postcard" look. To avoid grain in the highlights (which is fairly typical for that emulsion), I did a "fine grain" treatment at the lab treatment by pulling half a stop. I overexposed the negative one stop to get a richer negative and, for some sequences, I shot without an 85 filter to desaturate more. The result is that nature doesn’t take too much importance visually, and our gaze is pushed towards our two characters.

What were the shooting conditions ?
We had a small crew to allow multiple trips in the forest and on Lake Kivu. This reduced number of people was also a necessary condition for preserving the natural environment that we used as a backdrop. Under these conditions, we could only carry a little grip equipment and a little lighting.

We developed a system for moving the camera. The camera was suspended from a bar with elastic bands (see photo). Depending on the speed of the movement, the camera was carried by 2 or 4 grips. This technique worked really well and it gave us great vibrant images, in between a handheld camera and Steadicam. I also had a Mini Jib which allowed me to be freer with the camera and to adapt to the rhythm of the actress.

For lighting, it was not so simple. Much of the film is shot in the forest with very settled sequences, sometimes several days in the same setting. Obviously, the sun moves. To maintain consistency in the direction of light, I opted for a system that involved partially cutting light with nets or black cloth. It was pretty easy to hang all this in the trees. Usually I would lower the level 2 stops. Gradually, as the sun moved, I took off layers or I relit faces with small sources. I also had a 2.5 and a 4 kW, and a Joker 800 to raise the general level, that’s all.

For dark skin, you can create depth in the face by lighting in reflection, using white screens or sheets. To calibrate the reflections obtained on faces, I often used a polarizer. It’s pretty easy to set. Despite the subject, a woman who is fleeing genocide, her children murdered, I tried to reinforce the possible rebirth of this woman in the image, little by little. I wanted very much to have this shine on her face, this ephemeral spark that can make fate swivel.

We used traditional photochemical color timing ; Christophe Bousquet, of GTC Lab, checked the negative and would send me frames via Internet.

How does one do a film with a director who is also director of photography ?
It went very well, although we don’t have the same style photography or framing at all. Initially, Philippe was very close to the frame, technically speaking, then he dropped it to devote himself to the actors ; after one week, we each had our role.

What does this film and its subject represent for you ?
It had to be done. I think that films on such subjects are needed so as to not forget the horrors that have been committed. They are testimonies and they serve as our memory.

When you shoot in countries like Rwanda, you leave behind your usual comfort and you learn a lot. You work with local crews with whom you form a team. You have to adapt to their cultures and their ways of functioning. You are often faced with unforeseen situations or problems. I think you "surpass" yourself when you come to find solutions and achieve the result you had imagined.

In this film we were working with crew members and extras who had lived the horror of genocide. Ruth Nirere, who plays Jacqueline, is not an actress at first, but a well-known singer in Rwanda. She is extraordinary, so expressive with her eyes, so present. She played this extremely difficult and delicate role with great truth. We have discovered a remarkable actress !

Interview by Isabelle Scala

Translated by Benjamin B


Camera crew

camera 1st assistant : Benoît Deleris

camera 2d assistant : Yann Tribolle

Key grip : Simon Van Leeuw

Gaffer : Lucillo Da Costa

Negative : Fuji 400 ISO Tungsten

Camera gear : Panavision Alga Techno, Moviecam MKII, Arri BL III, Zeiss Ultra Primes

Lab : GTC, 1/2 stop pull processing

Colorist : Christophe Bousquet