[Editor's Note: "Munyurangabo" opens this Friday at New York's Anthology Film Archives.]
"Munyurangabo" boasts a provenance that would make a film festival programmer salivate -- here is a debut feature from Rwanda starring nonactors, written by a white American, and directed by a Korean-American. But the movie's successful jog on the festival circuit, which included stops at Cannes and Toronto, can be attributed to more than its back story. Rough around the edges though it may be, director Lee Isaac Chung's film is an intermittently lyrical and genuinely affecting work that at times even emits the shock of the new.
After a cryptic overture, we are introduced to Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa), or 'Ngabo for short, and Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) as they walk in slow motion down a Kigali road, arms around each other and seemingly carefree. The two are on a journey to an undisclosed destination, with a brief stopover with Sangwa's family, who live in a rural village from which he fled three years earlier. Despite some early tension between father (Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyinka) and son, the sojourn proves a happy one for Sangwa -- so much so that he tells 'Ngabo that he may have to continue on his journey alone. Complicating matters is Papa Sangwa's barely disguised hatred for 'Ngabo, a Tutsi boy living under his Hutu roof. 'Ngabo himself chafes at the sight of Sangwa with his family. It's a reminder of what he lost in the genocide, and of his odyssey's purpose: to find the man who killed his father and exact his revenge.
The first narrative feature to be made in the Kinyarwanda language, "Munyurangabo" strikes the proper balance between the ethnographic and the artistic. Chung and co-screenwriter Samuel Gray Anderson approached the project as an act of commemoration -- a scrapbook gift -- for a culture with no film industry to speak of. By no means perfect, the film is nonetheless a vivid and reverential reflection of a country and its people. The tapestry of folk songs, stories, poetry, landscapes, and faces is nothing if not touching, a defiant statement of a culture's endurance. Cynics will undoubtedly sneer at Chung's project, seeing in it nothing but exploitation by a privileged interloper: How presumptuous of a westerner to even think of offering such a "gift"! But such complaints are blind to what's onscreen and bespeak a narrow-mindedness that's inimical to art, not to mention at odds with the openhearted spirit that underpins Rwanda's halting yet hopeful steps toward reconciliation.
Shot with a nonprofessional cast and crew in less than two weeks, "Munyurangabo" can't avoid a certain amateurishness. For all of its beautiful imagery -- the deep, dark reds of the soil and the lush greens of the countryside leave lasting imprints - there are moments of visual awkwardness: a mistimed cut, a ham-handed skyward pan. But the occasional raggedness and artless performances also lend the movie a measure of innocence and a jolt of immediacy.
That said, neorealism isn't quite the movie's mode. Just as striking as its life-as-it's-lived rawness is Chung's stylistic approach. Chung understands the difference between anthropological actualite and film art. Throughout "Munyurangabo," you can feel him fumbling for a personal style through pastiche. The camera's gaze straying toward treetops is Malickian; the recurring shots following the boys from behind are reminiscent of the Dardennes; a direct-address poetry performance -- a stirring highlight -- comes right out of Spike Lee. Chung isn't afraid to dabble in magic realism either: one of the first images is of a blood smear on a machete that mysteriously disappears when the camera pans back to the blade; one of the last is of 'Ngabo's dead father sitting next to the boy, a mirage conjured up by a heartbroken orphan.
There's perhaps too much ventriloquism and not enough of Chung's own voice here, but it's early yet for the director, and there's much to build on. What "Munyurangabo" does reveal about Chung is a finely calibrated feeling for cinema as both advocacy and art. Chung sees no need to sacrifice one for the other -- indeed, he appears to view the two as complementary. It's an alchemy that, when it really works in "Munyurangabo," approaches something close to grace.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
[Elbert Ventura is a Reverse Shot staff writer, whose work has also appeared in Slate, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New Republic.]