How Could a Westerner Make a Movie That Understands the Rwandan Genocide?

10/07/2009 2:28 PM |


I first saw Lee Isaac Chung’s Munyurangabo (2007) at New Directors/New Films in 2008, and was struck both by the film’s reticent morality as well as by Chung’s subtle yet perceptive direction. Considering its political context (the cultural memory of genocide in Rwanda), the film could have easily flown off in the direction of heavy-handed earnestness. Instead, Chung managed to reign in “the message” and focus more on a narrative that is hauntingly empathetic in its exploration of cultural clashes, without giving in to easy answers or reductive symbolism. For the work of first-time filmmaker working with non-professional actors and improvising scenes based on a brief scenario in a language he doesn’t speak, it’s extremely impressive that Munyurangabo is as nuanced and discerning as it is, in both its political content and cinematic sensibility.

The film, newly released on DVD by Film Movement, opens with a swift montage in a crowded street. There’s a fight going on. Nearby, a young man, Munyurangabo (often called “Ngabo,” and played by Jeff Rutagengwa), catches sight of a machete. As fast at it appears on screen, he grabs it. Next we see him on a street corner staring at it. A close-up reveals it is covered in blood. The camera pans up to his face, and by the time it goes back to the blade, the blood is gone. That is the last we see of the machete for quite some time, yet even in its absence the specter of potential violence underscores his every movement and action. The vanishing machete is at once a symbol of memory and prophecy—of crimes past and still to come—and of the power of something beyond our vision to hold so much influence over us.

Mysteries pervade the first third of the movie. What is the machete for? Why are Ngabo and his friend, Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye), traveling to Sangwa’s home under false pretenses? Once there, the questions only continue to pile up, particularly concerning the tension between Sangwa (who hasn’t been home in three years) and his father (supposedly reformed from his abusive, alcoholic past). Well before these questions are answered, Chung offers hints through the careful, telling placement of actors within the frame. Whether arranging father and son at opposite ends of the shot, cramping mother and son within a doorway, or using an extreme long-shot to cover the reunion of old friends, miscommunication abounds. Everyone is aware that certain truths are being withheld, and Chung’s compositions highlight the distance between characters even within close physical proximity.

Though the film begins with Ngabo, the story seemingly shifts to Sangwa’s attempted reconciliation with his parents. Soon, however, this narrative departure becomes a central conflict. Ngabo’s marginalization within the film is emblematic of his status within Sangwa’s community: they belong to different tribes with longstanding feuds. And therein lay the roots of this whole journey: family. Sangwa visits his folks, and Ngabo seeks revenge for his father’s murder. Personal and national histories become fused in a complex moral dilemma in which the roots of conflict are hard to find, and possible resolution even harder.

Reflecting on the language barrier he faced during production, Lee Isaac Chung says in his director’s statement that it “forc[ed] me to work as an outsider. This guards against the conveyance of any personal ideas and truths that are relatively minor, allowing, instead, for an exploration of more universal matters that can connect a Korean American with a Rwandan.” Chung negotiates this cultural divide with great sensitivity, remaining respectful of his actors (who brought their own life experiences to the story) while also underscoring, but not overplaying, a more wide-reaching sympathy.


Also on DVD this week:

Audition (1999) (Shout! Factory, Blu Ray Region ‘A’) – As if the lady with a very large needle on the cover wasn’t frightening enough when you saw it on DVD, now you can watch her inflict pain and torture in Hi-Def. Squirm in your seat like never before.

How To Be A Man (Classic Educational Shorts Volume 1) (1949-1970) and How To Be A Woman (Classic Educational Shorts Volume 2) (1948-1982) (Kino, Region 1) – Still having trouble separating the birds from the bees? Grab a pencil and take notes! Among the most peculiar/promising titles included are Car Theft (from the Man’s disc) and Let’s Make a Sandwich (from the Woman’s disc). So I should be stealing cars rather than making sandwiches? I knew I made a life error somewhere along the way.

TCM Spotlight Collection: Esther Williams, Vol. 2 (Warner, Region 1) – I’m waiting for an Esther Williams revolution to happen. I hoped for it when Vol. 1 came out in 2007, but maybe it was premature. 2009 is the year when aquatic Technicolor musicals of the 1950s will be recognized for their modernist magnificence. This six disc box-set collects Thrill of a Romance, Fiesta, This Time for Keeps, Pagan Love Song, Million Dollar Mermaid, and Easy to Love.