I seem to be on something of a Robert Koehler love fest recently, which I assure you is purely coincidental; but, when a critic of Koehler's stature champions a small, unknown film like Lee Isaac Chung's Munyurangabo, it serves to emphasize what I think is best about this medium of film writing. Koehler's Variety review penned from Cannes motivated me to catch Munyurangabo at its sole Toronto International P&I screening. Koehler proclaims that Munyurangabo is the flat-out "discovery of this year's Un Certain Regard batch" and "is—by several light years—the finest and truest film yet on the moral and emotional repercussions of the 15-year-old genocide that wracked Rwanda." I couldn't agree more.
Cameron Bailey's TIFF program capsule likewise extols: "In the future, films like Munyurangabo might not seem so startling. But for now, this counts as one of the most audacious achievements of the year." "Nothing short of a marvel," Bailey continues, Munyurangabo is "[c]rafted with dramatic precision and deep humanity" and "rises to a stunning plea for reconciliation."
Munyurangabo practices the same kind of grass root aesthetics that lends Cochochi its organic integrity. Both films escape Western manipulations by putting the script and the camera's perspective into the hands of its indigenous subjects. Likewise, where Cochochi is strengthened by its usage of the Tarahumara language, Munyurangabo boasts the distinction of being the first film rendered in Kinyarwanda. Ethnography effectively meets the art house in each of these commendable gestures to world cinema. After watching Munyurangabo, I chased down director Lee Isaac Chung and scriptwriter Samuel Anderson who agreed to meet me in the lobby of Sutton Place, from where we found a café up the street where we could talk about their film.
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Michael Guillén: I'm sure I'm not the first one to express that it's somewhat startling to have the best African feature at the Toronto International be the work of a Korean-American and a White guy. [Laughter.] How did that come about?
Lee Isaac Chung: Thank you for saying that. It came about originally because my wife had been doing volunteer work in Rwanda for the last three summers. She does art therapy and she wanted me to come with her. We had just been married and it was the first summer after we'd been married. She wanted us to go together and she asked me to volunteer as well to do something. I figured cinema and filmmaking is all that I know that I could teach so I figured we were going to teach it. But as I was looking at the sort of films that were coming out of Rwanda, it seemed a little sad that there was nothing that focused on contemporary Rwanda. Everything just seemed to recreate what went on with the genocide. Also, all the films are very much for Western audiences from the Western perspective using Western actors, they speak English, maybe with an accent or something like that; but, nothing in Kinyarwanda, their local language. So that was the beginning of the project.
I asked Sam if he could write with me for the film and one of the first goals that we set was that we wanted this film to be for the Rwandans; that they would watch it and enjoy the film. We knew that if we did that, it would be a better film even in an international sense—if it was true to them and their audiences.
Guillén: Clearly the Rwandan participation is evident. It's my understanding, Samuel, that you actually approached them with a nine-page outline of the general film you and Lee were trying to create and basically developed the film with them through improvisation. As the writer, can you describe how you went about doing that?
Samuel Anderson: The writing process started out with Isaac and I working together. He had the basic story idea and we started dialoging about it, talking about thoughts that brought up between us. At first, a lot of it was just talking about different questions that we had that we wanted to address or see addressed in the film.
Guillén: I've been monitoring films on Rwanda for the last few years, beginning of course with Hotel Rwanda through various features and documentaries that have come along subsequently. As you were saying, Lee, either you get a Western perspective on the genocide, almost a compulsive attraction to that atrocity with all the attendant handwringing and guilt, or the coin flips and you get these feel-good documentaries chronicling efforts to glue everything back together. What I appreciated about your film, your story, was the evidence that the racism is still there—it hasn't magically gone away—and that it's still manifesting in continuing problematic ways. The most painful scene of the film for me was Sangwa's banishment from his family home. While you were developing and shooting the film, was there any evident conflict with the Rwandans about depicting that still-existing racism?
Chung: It's something that we had to be sensitive to. The whole idea of the racism being there in the movie came out of accounts we were reading about what's happening today. But also when we got there, we definitely encountered people who would talk about experiences they had personally of racism, even though on a public level there is such a push for reconciliation that there's almost this automatic response: "Oh yes, there's no more racism."
Guillén: That's what I'm saying. That's what I respect about your film's depiction of Rwandan life. It seems honest though sobering.
Chung: It was interesting because—once we told the students what we were going to do—it's as though they agreed, "Yes, we need to talk about this"; but, we never really had to talk about it together up front—"What did you experience as a Hutu or Tutsi?"—or anything like that with the students. But as we were shooting, it was evident that these concerns were on their minds. For instance, you're no longer allowed to say "Hutu" or "Tutsi" in Rwanda. It's a big taboo. So as we would film, I'd have to ask, "Would this situation happen?" and they would tell me yes or no. Or we would have to prepare them before scenes like the one where Sangwa is outed or when his father is saying racist things about Tutsis. We'd tell them, "These things are going to be said. We just want you to be prepared for them." But everyone took on this—by "everyone" I mean the crew who were locals—they seemed to take on a demeanor of, "Let's get this done because it needs to be said and spoken" so it felt right that we were doing this.
Guillén: Let me be sure that I'm clear on the structure of this. You went to help out your wife at some center in Rwanda where you decided to recruit the students into the development of the script and the making of the movie?
Chung: My wife volunteers at this Christian organization called Youth With A Mission ("YWAM") based in Kigali. It's primarily run by locals there. I taught a class of about 15 students. At first I was teaching photography and one of our other co-producers Jenny Lund—she didn't come to Toronto—she taught with me. We also trained them as the crew. Together we also talked about the story a lot and the details of what we wanted in the film. Then we brought on two actors who are street boys and orphans, the two that you see [Josef ("Jeff") Rutagengwa as Ngabo and Eric Ndorunkundiye as Sangwa], who we connected through YWAM because they do outreach to street boys in helping them find work and also helping them get off drugs and stuff like that. That's how we connected with them. It all took place through YWAM, working with this class of boys, and making the film together.
Guillén: Have they seen the film?
Guillén: How has their response been?
Chung: Very positive. They're very excited about it.
Guillén: They realize they've done something good and helped turn something around?
Chung: Yeah, the two actors especially were very excited.
Anderson: They were at Cannes with us when we showed the film there.
Guillén: Really? That's wonderful. My understanding is you're admirably developing opportunities for more films to be made in Rwanda by Rwandan filmmakers?
Anderson: We definitely want to see great cinema come out of Rwanda. Working with the folks we worked with on the film, we could definitely see the ground being laid for that.
Guillén: I'm disheartened that there isn't more African cinema here at the Toronto International.
Chung: Yes, definitely.
Guillén: That's why—even though your film slips through the categorizations and isn't defined as African cinema—I commend your usage of Rwandan locals in both cast and crew to create a film that—in my estimation—is primarily for Rwandans as well as a Western audience. How did you formulate that game plan?
Chung: Before we went to Rwanda, we had decided that goal. I don't know exactly how that conversation came up where we really set that goal…?
Anderson: I'm not sure, but that was our goal from the beginning, even while we were talking about it beforehand and coming up with ideas for the film, wanting to leave it very open so that—once Lee got to Rwanda—his encounters and interactions could continue to shape the film so that even during the shooting process actors and crew could shape the film.
Guillén: What were the logistics of working in Kinyarwanda, a foreign language?
Chung: It's not too difficult. I had made a documentary in China and I don't speak Chinese. Among my short films, one of them's in Spanish. I've built up to doing this kind of thing.
Guillén: Do you prefer the creative challenge of working in a foreign language?
Chung: I think now I would like to work in English because there are problems and obstacles; but, over all, it's not as difficult as you might think.
Guillén: The poem at film's end recited in Kinyarwanda by Edouard Bamporiki Uwayo, could you speak a little bit about him? I understand he's Rwanda's poet laureate?
Chung: He's just directed his first film in Rwanda. I went back to teach again this Summer and he wants to be a filmmaker as well. His name is Edouard Bamporiki. "Uwayo" is kind of a pseudonym. He's a pretty young guy, maybe 22 years old, and already well known in Rwanda for his poetry. We showed the film in Rwanda this past summer and—when the audiences were listening to the poem—they just started laughing at parts. I asked, "Is it funny to you?" They said, "It's funny that he's so good at poetry" because he comes up with all these complex rhyme structures and what he says is so clever that so much is lost in the translation.
Guillén: I could feel that as I was watching the film. As a viewer, you have a visceral reaction to the almost hiphop rap of his recitation and I knew the subtitles were not matching the enthusiasm of his cadence.
Guillén: Don't get me wrong, the translations of the subtitles were still lovely and meaningful, but it's the enthusiastic rhythm of his language that didn't translate. I was glad we were able to watch and listen to him recite.
Chung: The elements that we wanted to put in the film were traditional Rwandan elements. The music that you hear is traditional Rwandan music that, I hear, is dying out now after the genocide. We found someone who could do these traditional Rwandan songs and had her perform. The dancing and the poetry, we wanted to include these as part of the film, as a theme of someone exploring his memory and constructing his identity from what he remembers. When I heard Edouard reciting his poetry, I knew it should be in the film. He's actually one of the students in the class. I had made an assignment for the students that they had to listen to a poem and do some photography based on the poem. I had Edouard recite a poem, because I knew he was a poet, but I didn't realize how gifted he was until he actually recited it. Once someone translated the poem to me, I said, "We should put it in the film."
Guillén: Edouard's poem helped articulate Ngabo's spiritual transformation, rendered as it were through your silhouettes of him. First, machete in hand, with revenge on his mind and then, without the machete, ready to draw water to sate thirst. What can you say to the fact that the enemy he has pursued throughout the film has become afflicted with AIDS? And is it believable that Ngabo would abandon his desire for revenge to caretake this individual? To bring him water to sate his thirst? Is that a dynamic that would genuinely happen or is it more your hope projected onto film?
Anderson: I think it is a hope more than necessarily a reality. We wanted the film to end with an image of reconciliation, yes, but I guess with a surprising image. It doesn't necessarily seem realistic but at the same time it seems possible.
Guillén: Like an ideal to hold aloft? And interestingly, comparable to the resolution achieved in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Daratt wherein it becomes the spiritual responsibility of the individual to transform his anger and his hunger for vengeance into reconciliation. Another focus addressed by Edouard's poem that I much admired was his focus on the necessary role of women in restoring and rebuilding Rwanda to health. There have been a few documentaries that have addressed that issue (God Sleeps in Rwanda comes to mind). Because so many men were killed during the genocide, it's my understanding that it has fallen to female survivors to repair the infrastructure. Did you find that to be true?
Chung: In a way that is true because there are so many widows in Rwanda from the genocide. From the work that we know going on around us, a lot of people are trying to mobilize widows and young women to become more actively involved, to get young women into schools. It's definitely an issue.
Guillén: How has this been for you, Lee? Dealing with this material? Listening to the testimonials of survivors? To bear witness, in effect, to these experiences? Have you had to necessarily place yourself within the safety of a bell jar? To distance yourself from the historical atrocities?
Chung: It's definitely such a dark thing to hear. My wife and I have talked about this a lot. There's this traumatizing experience of actually encountering people and listening to their stories. I suppose that somehow it becomes a part of you in a necessary way but I don't know how to actually express that.
Guillén: Has it strengthened you as an individual?
Chung: It's changed me, though I don't know if it's strengthened me. I don't know how to qualify.
Guillén: As the writer, Samuel, I imagine you were likewise hearing many of these survivor testimonials while developing the script. How have you been impacted?
Anderson: It was quite an experience. It was different being over there than what I imagined. When we first started talking about the script, one of the main texts that I read to try to educate myself more on genocide was a book called Machete Season where French journalist Jean Hatzfeld interviews a number of men who are in prison who were killers during the genocide who, through interviews with them, basically goes through what the genocide was like. It's horrifying to read and deeply deeply troubling. But when I came to Rwanda and met the people there, it gave me much more hope than I felt before going over there as far as how it is possible to face something as awful as that was and still find healing and find reconciliation.
Chung: And maintain humanity.
Guillén: Perhaps it's not so astounding that the machete itself has become the quintessential symbol of the Rwandan genocide. Your usage of it in Munyurangabo as a symbol, namely in the initial image where Ngabo envisions blood on its blade, is ominous. I'm further struck by the theme you set up of how the racism is still brooding though lying dormant. Sangwa, in his own way, is trying to reconcile the conflict. He befriends Ngabo and has even agreed to help Ngabo on his mission. But along the way, when they stop in to visit his family, Sangwa feels the pressure of his family to maintain racism and is—in one of the film's most painful scenes—thrown out of his father's house for not doing so. Is that a circumstance that has been reported to you? Have young men been exiled from their families for not supporting racism? For wanting to move on?
Chung: The basis, for me at least, was one experience with a girl Jacki who is doing reconciliation. She works with the Reconciliation Center in Rwanda. She told me that her father is so angry that she would help Hutus when she was Tutsi and I knew that created a lot of tension in her family that was still yet to be resolved. That was the basis for going into that. I didn't meet anyone else experiencing that issue.
Guillén: For me it was heartfelt and powerful for being unanticipated. Of course in retrospect it's only obvious that such tensions would exist within families; but, it was painful to watch in the film. And very well acted. Very believable. Yet, you're using non-actors, right? Acting off the passion of their own experiences?
Anderson: In many ways. Even the scene where Sangwa returns and meets his mother for the first time and the things that he brings his mother, that was reconstructed from the actor's own memories of when he had actually gone home.
Guillén: So what are you two working on next?
Chung: There's a poem by Gerald Stern, do you know the poet?
Guillén: I'm sorry to say I don't.
Chung: He's an American poet and he wrote a poem called "Lucky Life" that I really like. We're trying to make a film that follows the emotions of the poem. I like the relationship between poetry and film.
Guillén: I was going to commend the poetic sensibility within Munyurangabo. The ideals that you're holding aloft—as we were discussing earlier—are poetic ideals. I too like the melding of those two mediums and will look forward to that project.
Chung: I hope we can get it done and get it made.
Guillén: Well you're earning good credits with Munyurangabo. You got great press coverage at Cannes.
Chung: So far. The Variety review surprised us when that came out.
Guillén: But it shouldn't! Yours is a solid, good film. Has it been picked up for distribution?
Chung: We have a sales agent now [Umedia Sarl] and that's the most recent development. I know they're working on it.
Guillén: Well, I wish you much luck with Munyurangabo and thank the two of you for taking the time today to talk to me about it.
Cross-published on Twitch.