Look out, pumpkin patch. Judge William Lee has a new machete.
"That boy you are with…don't you know he's a Tutsi?"
The first dramatic feature in the Kinyarwanda language, Munyurangabo was shot on location in Rwanda by a Korean-American director from Arkansas. The movie garnered recognition at all the major film festivals and won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 American Film Institute Fest. This tale of reconciliation feels authentic in its portrayal of life in Rwanda and its message is heartfelt and moving.
Facts of the Case
Munyurangabo, who goes by the shortened name Ngabo, carries a machete in his backpack because he intends to kill the man who murdered his father during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. With his friend Sangwa accompanying him, the two teenagers set out on a journey through the countryside. On the way, the boys stop at Sangwa's home village where his parents are still tending their meager farm. As their short visit turns into a multi-day stay, Sangwa bonds with his father but Ngabo grows increasingly anxious to continue on his vengeful mission. The boys' friendship is further tested when Sangwa's parents remind him, "Hutus and Tutsis are enemies."
The scars of history weigh heavily on all of the characters in this film. Though the source of that sadness and anger is often left unstated, you can see its effects in the weariness of the people. That the young protagonists might overcome their tribal prejudices is a hopeful statement. The tone of the filmmaking delivers this message simply and authentically.
The film is about the lingering memories of a brutal recent past and the struggle for national healing. Ngabo and Sangwa are from separate tribes but their friendship is the result of the camaraderie of survival. They met on the streets of Kigali and they are teamed together because one of them is seeking justice. That their bond is questioned by the older generation, specifically by Sangwa's father, shows the deep tribal division that still lives on. Since Papa Sangwa doesn't clarify why the Tutsis tried to put him in jail it hints at the foggy nature of his involvement in historical events. Late in the movie, there is a spellbinding recitation of poetry by Edouard B. Uwayo—actual poetry he prepared for National Independence Day—that sums up everything about the movie's themes and the shame and hope of his country. For a nation that has seen too much blood shed, the only way forward is to find a way to forgive.
Considering his North American background, I would have expected director Lee Isaac Chung to tell this story using a conventional Western filmmaking style. However, instead of the usual close-ups and reaction shots that make up the cinematic language we normally expect, Chung has employed the aesthetics seen in so-called "Third World" cinema. The cinematography generally prefers wide shots and the camera seems to capture events by virtue of its patience observing a scene from a defined vantage point rather than having actors recite dialogue to the camera. This style can be frustrating as sometimes we're watching the backs of actors' heads during long exchanges but it also feels less intrusive on the characters' space. This is not to say Chung's technique feels impoverished; it is an elegant style that suits this story and these actors well. What is glimpsed of the life in the Rwandan countryside, such as the condition of the family's home and their social interaction, are also quite fascinating.
The young, novice performers at the center of the film are completely believable. Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) ran away from home three years ago but he's eager to make amends with his family and regain the approval of his stern father. Sangwa is smart and loyal but he needs the guidance of a strong role model. The brooding Ngabo (Jeff Rutagengwa), driven and confused by his anger, has a quietly intense presence. He easily makes some of the other inhabitants of Sangwa's village his friends but his attitude is tempered by a distrust he assumes is reciprocated by all Hutus.
It's plain to see that the film didn't have a big budget so there are some shortcomings when it comes to production polish. Even so, the DVD transfer doesn't do the film any favors. The picture is slightly dark and the cinematography isn't well balanced between the bright skies and the dark skin tones of the actors. Consequently, when the environment is rendered at an average brightness, the actors' faces are lost in the shadows. Most of the time, the protagonists are identifiable because Sangwa wears a white shirt and Ngabo wears a dark shirt but recognizing their facial features is nearly impossible. The image is soft most of the time and there is a constant flickering in the upper right corner of the frame. The audio is merely passable, allowing viewers to hear when someone is speaking though it's hard to tell one voice from another.
The extras for the movie are bare bones: a trailer and text screen biographies for the cast and the director. Something more on the unique making of this film would have been welcome.
Film Movement has packaged the movie with the Swiss short film Alptraum. On a tranquil hillside, the audio from the broadcast of a big soccer game spills out from a cabin. Suddenly, the signal cuts out at the most crucial moment of the match. The three-minute film is simply scripted, efficiently told, charming and humorous.
The technical presentation is a disappointment but the power of the hopeful story makes up for it. The assured direction communicates the tension and fatigue that looms over the proceedings. The story and the people feel real because of the natural performances and the small details of country life. The praise the movie received at festivals is justified and it's worth a look on DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Film Movement
• Short Film
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