BSS Alumna EMILY KASSIE ’10 wins Student Academy Award for Best Documentary Film
Photo: Emily giving her Academy Award acceptance speech.
When Emily Kassie was 13, she sat in her Social Issues class at BSS watching the film Shake Hands With the Devil, the story of General Romeo Dallaire’s desperate attempt to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Until that day, Emily had been blissfully unaware of both the amount and severity of conflict taking place around the world on any given day. The film hit her hard.
“I was a mess,” she recalls. “For some reason it deeply resonated with me. I was completely traumatized. I was crying for days.”
Nearly a decade later, Emily has just flown to L.A. to accept the Student Academy Award for Best Documentary for her film I Married My Family’s Killer — a portrait of Rwandan genocide victims who chose Rwandan genocide perpetrators as their life partners.
For Emily, this unique fusion of human rights advocacy and filmmaking began in the halls of BSS — a place she says encouraged her to think broadly across disciplines and connect multiple passions wherever possible in new and creative ways.
“BSS helped me foster those two things together, which has been absolutely essential to my work,” she says.
After her sudden awakening in Social Issues class, Emily began organizing movie nights to fundraise for War Child Canada. Around that time, she took her first Film class at BSS and began to identify a crucial connection between activism and camera work. That class helped her solidify the hard skills she needed go out and document real people’s struggles and sorrows.
“I felt that film had the power to transform perspective,” she says. “I was very encouraged by the medium and I loved the way the visual storytelling resonated with people. That was the beginning of my film career.”
It was in Film class at BSS that Emily made her first social issues documentary — an ambitious piece on LGBTQ students in Toronto high schools. Emily fondly remembers her teachers and mentors, who were generous with their time, their resources and their consultation — but always gentle in their approach to introducing distressing subjects to their young and sensitive students.
After graduating from BSS in 2010, Emily headed to college at Brown University where her drive and tenacity enabled her to design her own major — a triple threat in politics, film, and journalism. During the summer after her first year, Emily took a trip to Rwanda. That trip ended up leading her unexpectedly into her first feature documentary.
Initially, Emily went to Rwanda to write a thesis about censorship. But the more time she spent in the country, the more she travelled and talked to people, the more she became fascinated by the idea of reconciliation post-genocide.
After the Rwandan genocide ended, many people returned to their villages because packing up and starting a new life elsewhere just wasn’t a realistic option. The result was that perpetrators of horrific violence and mass murder were living alongside the very people they had tortured and maimed, as well as the family members of people they had killed. Emily was struck by how this type of coexistence was possible, and how far these relationships could go. Her curiosity led her to find three married couples who had once been on opposing sides of the war. In some cases, the husband had killed the wife’s entire family.
“The type of resilience it takes to live next to your killer is extraordinary – let alone marry them,” she says.
She began conducting extensive interviews and eventually left Rwanda with a full-length film about the very issue that had so deeply moved and disturbed her at age 13.
Emily graduated from Brown in 2014 and now lives a full and busy life in New York, where she’s the artistic director and investigative visual reporter for Highline, the long form magazine of The Huffington Post. She continues to report on difficult social issues such as police brutality, corporate greed, Big Pharma, and sexual assault. She’s eager to make her next film, in which she’s hoping to explore some of the social problems present in First Nation and Native American communities.
Congratulations Emily on a well-deserved win.
By Sophie Kohn