Rwanda, speaking in its own voice

IT is safe to say that when most American filmmakers think about the global reach of their movies, they are not considering the concept in quite the same way as Lee Isaac Chung, whose first feature, “Munyurangabo,” happens also to be the first narrative feature made in Rwanda’s native language of Kinyarwanda.
A scene from the film “Munyurangabo,” which Lee Isaac Chung made in the native language of  Kinyarwanda.
A scene from the film “Munyurangabo,” which Lee Isaac Chung made in the native language of Kinyarwanda.

IT is safe to say that when most American filmmakers think about the global reach of their movies, they are not considering the concept in quite the same way as Lee Isaac Chung, whose first feature, “Munyurangabo,” happens also to be the first narrative feature made in Rwanda’s native language of Kinyarwanda.

“I know this sounds idealistic, but it was a conscious decision to make a film for and about Rwandans,” Chung, 29, said in an interview last spring during the Cannes Film Festival, where his film had its premiere. “It was definitely not a practical decision,” he added, referring to the challenge of making a movie in a country he had never visited and where he did not speak the language. “But since it was our first film, we thought, ‘Why not?’ ”

A few years ago Mr. Chung’s wife, Valerie, an art therapist who had traveled to Rwanda as a volunteer to help those affected by the 1994 Genocide, urged him to accompany her. He signed on to teach a filmmaking class at a Christian relief base in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, in the summer of 2006.

Sensing an opportunity to make a movie that presents the country as it is now, not simply as a historical site of atrocity, he arrived with a nine-page outline — the story of two teenage boys and the single-minded quest that comes between them — which he had written with the help of Samuel Anderson, an old friend. He shot “Munyurangabo” at the end of his trip, over 11 days, working with nonprofessional actors he found through local orphanages and using a few of his students as crew members.

The day after his film’s premiere, sitting with a few of his actors in the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Cannes, Mr. Chung seemed a little stunned that his intimate, micro-budget film had brought him to such glamorous surroundings. He had submitted it to the festival “blind and right on deadline,” he said. “I don’t know that we had any expectations while shooting. We weren’t thinking about it in terms of careers.”

Writing in Variety, the critic Robert Koehler called “Munyurangabo” the discovery of the Un Certain Regard section. The film is still without a United States distributor, but it has since played at more than a dozen festivals, including those in Toronto and Berlin and at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles (where it won the top prize), and it will screen in New York this week as part of the New Directors/New Films series, which begins on Wednesday.

On paper the production of “Munyurangabo” — the title is the name of one of the characters and of an ancient Rwandan warrior — would seem to have been facing a thicket of cultural and linguistic barriers, but the filmmakers made the most of the situation by soliciting the input of the cast.

“We had to leave it very open,” said Anderson, who was in Rwanda for the filming. “Sometimes we would just ask: ‘Does this seem realistic?’ ‘What would someone do in this situation?’ It helped that our translator had a great ear for the subtleties of language.”
Chung also served as cinematographer and editor. He shot with an old mechanical camera on super-16-millimeter film, “for aesthetic reasons” but also because of concerns over the erratic power supply in Rwanda, which would make lighting and working with a digital camera difficult.

This made for a harrowing return trip, since airport security “kept trying to put the film through the X-ray machine,” he said. On the set the biggest glitch came midway through the shooting when one of the actors shaved his head, forcing the production to take a five-day break while his hair grew back.

Unlike the bigger-budget Rwanda-themed films of recent years — “Hotel Rwanda,” “Sometimes in April,” “Beyond the Gates” — “Munyurangabo” does not explicitly revisit the 1994 slaughters. It is instead a quiet accounting of the aftermath, tracing the ripple effects as they are felt among friends and within households, setting the thirst for vengeance against the possibility of reconciliation.

And unlike most movies set in strife-torn faraway lands and made by American or European directors, “Munyurangabo” declines to provide the requisite surrogate figure — usually a noble do-gooder — for the Western audience. The desire to remove the presence, and even the perspective, of the outsider-observer was “partially a test,” Chung said, “to see if we could bridge gaps between cultures.”

Questions of identity and belonging have fascinated and flummoxed Chung for much of his life. He was born in Colorado a year after his parents emigrated from Korea, and he grew up in rural Arkansas. (He now lives in Brooklyn.) “I’ve never felt completely American,” he said. “Growing up where I was, there were no Asians, no minorities, and there was always something to remind me of what I’m not. And when I go to Korea it’s the same thing. I’m constantly reminded that I’m not Korean.”

This sense of placelessness lies at the heart of “Munyurangabo.” “I wanted to make something that transcends borders and gets beyond this feeling of national identity,” Mr. Chung said recently over drinks in Brooklyn. It is a sentiment that links his film with the recent work of Ramin Bahrani (“Chop Shop”), So Yong Kim (“In Between Days”) and Lance Hammer (“Ballast,” also screening at New Directors/New Films).

All are adventurous young American directors who represent a break from the domestic indie tradition, drawing instead from the humanist, neorealist school and contemporary descendants like Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien and Belgium’s Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.

Chung discovered these filmmakers, as well as other world-cinema touchstones like Yasujiro Ozu and Andrei Tarkovsky, while studying biology at Yale. The next step would have been medical school, but he was so smitten with movies by his senior year that he chose to pursue a graduate film degree at the University of Utah. As a student Chung “had the uncanny ability to absorb and replicate the style of his favorite filmmakers,” said Kevin Hanson, chairman of the film department at the University of Utah.

“When he settled into his own work, this paid off big for him.”
Mr. Chung and Mr. Anderson are looking closer to home for their next project, “Lucky Life,” a drama about friendship and mortality inspired by a poem by Gerald Stern, the onetime poet laureate of New Jersey.

“It’s a film about disillusionment as a positive force,” Chung said. “Munyurangabo” was self-financed, but the financing for the new film, which will probably be a Korean co-production, is already largely in place. Chung acknowledged that the festival success of “Munyurangabo,” while a boon, has occasionally left him uncomfortable.

“There are times I’ve almost felt colonialist about it,” he said, referring to the awkward position of being an American effectively representing Rwanda on the international festival circuit. “Getting into Cannes and getting recognition only compounded the feeling. I’ve been talking about cinema about and by Rwandans, and I still want that to happen, but I know that’s not what we did with this film.”

Lack of infrastructure remains a major impediment to the growth of Rwandan film culture. There are only two theaters in the country, Chung said, which cater mainly to expatriates. “Munyurangabo” has yet to play in Rwanda, though a screening is planned for this year. Mr. Chung is also returning this summer, as he did last summer, to teach and work toward the establishment of a film school.

There are already signs of progress. A few of his students have just finished their own film, Chung said. He hasn’t seen it, but he does know one thing: “They’re submitting it to Cannes.”

The New York Times

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