Why He’s On Our Radar: The first feature film from a Rwandan filmmaker — ever — Kivu Ruhorahoza’s “Grey Matter” won a warm response at the Tribeca Film Festival, winning both a special jury mention and a best actor prize for star Ramadhan “Shami” Bizimana. The film follows Balthazar (Bizimana), a young African filmmaker on the brink of directing his first project, “The Cycle of the Cockroach.” When potential funders for the film insist the themes are too bleak and encourage Balthazar to make a “message” film that raises awareness about gender-based violence or HIV/AIDS instead, he refuses to give up — even if it drives him to the edge. Ruhorahoza explained that “Matter” is a movie “about imagination and madness.” He simply wanted to show the lives and confusions of young Rwandese people struggling with trauma. “I wanted to show on screen that loss of sanity that so many of us in Rwanda have experienced,” he said.
More About Him: “I never wanted to become a footballer or any type of hero,” Ruhorahoza told indieWIRE. “I was often sick and somewhat of a strange kid. Right after the genocide, I was 11 and a half and really confused. I was reading so many books for adults (Oscar Wilde, Flaubert, Norman Mailer) and decided that I would become a writer. In my teenage years, I watched lots of Hollywood movies and would write really pathetic short stories and poems. Then one day, I accidentally watched a movie on TV from Ivory Coast called ‘In the Name of the Christ.’ I was stunned by its power and originality. The story was about a pig keeper in an African village who decides to become Jesus and convinces his peers to crucify him! Then few months later, I must have been 17 and obsessed by sex, I went to watch an ‘erotic film’ which turned out to be a French masterpiece called ‘L’Ennui’ by Cédric Kahn. That night, I decided that I would become a filmmaker. I felt that cinema was the convergence point of many other forms of arts. All these strange feelings, obsessions, fears that I had, I knew that there was a way to fully express them: film.”
What’s Next: Ruhorahoza is currently finishing his second feature. “The story is about an African gay man who is deported from a European country to an African one,” he said. “His arrival coincides with the one of the most influential American televangelist who is on his “Are You Ready For Miracle?” campaign. The young man who has changed so much tries to adapt himself to the new reality. Right after Tribeca, I am going to make a documentary in Vietnam and Cambodia with my friend saxophonist and clarinetist Jeremy Danneman. At this stage, all we know is that it will involve music performances in public spaces and performances with local musicians. With this film, I hope to understand the power of the decibel in a post-conflict context: music, bombs, screams. We will certainly experiment something, maybe we’ll even be able to create a new form of jazz: napalm jazz!”
indieWIRE Asks: Where did the idea for this film come from? How much of yourself is in this story?
During the Tutsi genocide, I was in a little town bordering what was then Zaire (now Congo), visiting my sick grandmother, while the rest of my family was left in Kigali. When the telephone lines were cut few days after the genocide had started, I could not know what my family was going through anymore. I was only left with my imagination, thinking and worrying and creating in my head good scenarios for them until the day the terrible (and luckily false) news reached me that the mutilated bodies of my sister and my mother had been found in a gutter.
At that point, I began imagining terrible things, especially about what they had possibly suffered as women before they were killed. Fortunately, all my family survived. Many other young men were not as lucky as I was. They lost everything. But in a conflict where rape was widespread, I never dared to ask my mother and my sister about their lives during the genocide.
When I was 13 or 14, I loved reading and writing. That’s when I took the first notes that a decade later would become the first of draft of “Grey Matter,” about the descent into madness of two orphaned siblings. Every April in Rwanda during the commemoration of the genocide, I would see young people fainting in the streets, having seizures, screaming, undressing themselves. Each time I would see that, I realized how lucky I had been. Then one day around April 2007, I heard about a madman who wanders the streets of Kigali talking about the people he killed during the genocide. This madman could have been lying or haunted by the people he massacred. I liked the ambiguity that comes with his mental condition. Before the genocide, radio stations encouraged some people to kill the cockroaches (Tutsis and their accomplices) and some young men thought it was cool to appear as some cockroach exterminators. Back then, some would say: I killed 10 cockroaches today.
Well, obviously most of them did, but I couldn’t tell about the madman I heard about. Was he a former killer or just another madman? I wrote a poem about him that gradually became a screenplay. I wanted to explain the origin of the orphaned siblings’ woes by showing the story of a young man gone mad with the collaboration of the radio. By that time, I had a feature in two parts. But I was kind of unhappy. I thought the film could have been another genocide story. When in 2008 I tried to make some short films about art, sex, philosophy, I encountered a number of problems that frustrated me quite a lot. Then in 2009, stuck in the Isabel Maria Sheraton Hotel of Mexico City because of the H1N1 flu, in about three days, I wrote a story about a young filmmaker trying to make a film dear to him in a country where there is no film culture. I called that part “An Irrelevant Story,” linked it to the two other stories and sent the screenplay to my friend Ari Wegner.
How do you tell this story with style and accuracy?
I love stories told with subtlety. My film would have been easy to find money for if I had made it as some sort of fictitious reportage. When writing different parts of the film, I was asking myself, ‘How do I tell this story with style and accuracy?’ I read a lot about mental illnesses. I was absolutely stunned about the explanations I got for all these irrational things I was seeing among my people. We all are crazy! I then read lots of books about independent filmmaking. I had to think about international audiences, since the story was full of symbols that only people informed on Rwanda would understand. I watched lots of movies about madness, particularly “Breaking the Waves” by Lars von Trier, and “The Tenant” and “Repulsion,” both by Roman Polanski.
The part with the filmmaker happens in the modern Kigali. When brainstorming with myself, I was seeing and thinking: nice warm colors, cozy cafes, RedBull, cigarettes, books, Mac computers and HDV handycams. I wanted this part of the film to show the lifestyle of a guy like Balthazar (the filmmaker in the film). But I was worried that audiences had seen way too many struggling filmmakers on screen and I wanted this part to be as short as possible. But in the first few shots, I wanted to show some of the reasons why this guy is dying to tell his story.
In the second part of the film, I had to recreate a room that could have been a cell or a mental hospital room. That ambiguity was important to me. Either this guy is serving his jail sentence and being haunted by his massacres or he is a mentally ill young man struggling with a brain that plays him tricks. For me, he is both characters. When he goes to show the mass grave to the siblings, he must have been taken out of some jail because he is one of the killers. But there are also lots of indications that he is in a mental hospital.
With this part, I wanted to give my opinion on the genocide: a young restless man gets encouraged by the radio to eradicate cockroaches. He is told that the government supports him. He is encouraged with some beers, some weed but he might also be a patient since he gets a pill. When he rapes, he gets applauded, when he feels that he is about to be caught by the rebel army, a foreign government creates a ‘’humanitarian zone’’ for him to flee. This is what happened with the militias and and that is how they ran away to the Congo with the help of the French government. I had to say this in a way or another. I could only pack it up in those few minutes full of symbols.
The last part of the film was the trickiest one for me. I wanted to show two young people who have lost it all. How was I gonna show all that with dignity and sensitivity? I watched some films of Kim Ki-duk because he has interesting ways of showing fallen women. My hero, Justine is a fighter but reality is stronger than her. How would I show that without being gratuitously cruel to her character? I wanted her beautiful, strong, determined and I wanted her house to still have the signs of a wealthy past. I read some poems by Charles Baudelaire to get inspired by what he calls ‘’la douce folie.'”
What major challenges did you have to overcome?
The main challenge was a classic one: money. Like any other young filmmaker, I thought my script was amazing and that everyone would agree with me on that obvious fact. I applied for some grants and did not get any money. I asked support from the ministry of culture and all I got was a To Whom It May Concern letter informing everyone that I was allowed to shoot my film. At the end, I had to make the film with my very meager savings, friends and family’s financial support and the tremendous support of the guys from Scarab Studio Films in Australia and my editor Antonio Rui Ribeiro from London.
The other challenge was the experience. First-time filmmakers don’t have the idea of how much you have to be meticulously prepared to shoot a feature length movie. Mentally, you really have to be strong and prepared for all sorts of scenarios and everyday unforeseen events. In the first few days, I was so intimidated by Ari Wegner, the cinematographer. She was so brilliant and I was terrified by the idea of embarrassing her with direction that didn’t match her awesomeness in cinematography. And something else I understood is that when you shoot your first feature, your authority will be challenged every single hour of every day during production. Directing this microbudget film with the smallest crew possible was a nightmare. Some say that it allows much more artistic freedom but it is as enjoyable as masturbating. At the end, you are vaguely satisfied but you know that you could have achieved so much with someone else’s passionate help.
There is a grant I was expecting from a European country and I had got some strong promises that I would be getting it. Production was scheduled to start on the 15th October 2009, the same day when the grant decisions were supposed to be announced officially. I checked my emails around midnight on the 14th and read the email that was informing me that unfortunately my grant had fallen through! I didn’t tell my team and the next day we shot our first scenes of the filmmaker’s meeting with the guy from the commission.
When I had to shoot the part of the film with a cockroach, I had caught two of them in my house and kept them in a jar. What I didn’t know is that when cockroaches feel threatened, they change their brown color to beige! I don’t know if all cockroaches do that, but the species in Rwanda does. When we started shooting with the cockroach, someone noticed that it was changing color. And few minutes later, in between takes, our cockroach had completely changed! From that moment, I knew I would need tons of cockroaches. I asked all the crew and cast, each one of them, to bring me at least two cockroaches every day starting the next day. The sound guy brought me over 10 the next day.
During production, I needed a budget of about $200 every day for food and refreshments. Every morning, I would wake up after my two-hour sleep haunted by those $200. After the first week of production, I didn’t have any money at all! So many times, I had $2 to $5 in the morning! One time, I took the crew to lunch with only $10 in my pocket. While they were all eating, I was making tens of calls to people to ask them to lend me some money urgently. In post-production in London, my first editor took the tube with the drives which contained the original files of the movie. She had lots of bags and the one with my drives was stolen! When she told me on the phone, I knew the film was cursed. We made a backup of the backup and started editing. Few months later, the editor got a call from someone who had found her bag in a London park with dog poop on it!