I am standing outside the Clearview Cinemas in Chelsea, on a loud, busy Manhattan sidewalk.
Theater employees mingle with staff and volunteers of the annual Tribeca Film Festival, the latter given away by the lanyard badges flapping against their chests.
Our motley crew has just watched three short films by Rwandan filmmakers: ‘Saa-Ipo’ by Jean Luc “Fils” Habyarimana, about an orphaned young musician; ‘Lyiza’ by Marie Clementine Dusabejambo, about a schoolgirl who meets the child of her family’s murderers and ‘Shema’ by Kayambi Musafiri, about a teenage amputee struggling to overcome depression.
The films are deft, vivid snapshots of a land rarely imagined beyond mid-1990s newsreels.
As we clapped for the third and final short, the filmmakers approached the front to field questions. Beside them, without introduction, appeared a bubbly Rwandan woman -- the translator. Then she seized the microphone, interrupting and speaking for the filmmakers.
Her banal, chipper comments seemed scripted and her presence directly linked to the distinguished men seated in the center row: Rwandan Ambassador to the U.S James Kimonyo and Rwandan Ambassador to the UN Eugene Gasana.
I later learned that the woman had come at the behest of Rwanda’s Ministry of Culture. Among her apparent duties was to handle -- gently, but handle nevertheless -- the three young filmmakers on their first U.S trip.
After the screening, Fils, Clementine, and Musafiri are honoured at a swanky rooftop reception. I attend, too, enjoying a beer and delicate ‘hors d’oeuvres’ while forcing a perceptual adjustment, from the films’ post-genocidal scenes to the vapid luxury car commercial projected behind the bar.
In the days following, the young Rwandans would lunch with Robert De Niro and have supper with Lou Reed and Amanda Plummer. Extraordinary events woven together by an unassuming, arty couple I know from college: Isaac Chung and Valerie Chu.
If you follow independent cinema, you will likely have heard of Isaac. His first feature-length narrative, ‘Munyurangabo’, premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, screened at the Museum of Modern Art, and earned international distribution.
Shot in Rwanda, the film follows the fictional, redemptive journey of two adolescents in the wake of civil war -- a departure from the staid genre of post-conflict documentaries and Hollywood human rights fare.
Before creating ‘Munyurangabo’, Isaac had no connection to Rwanda. He ended up there on account of his wife Valerie, who had first visited Kigali as a volunteer art therapist with a Christian service group in 2004.
“I pretty much fell in love with Rwanda and kept going back,” Valerie explains, “so when we got married in 2005, I wanted Isaac to come as well.” The following year, in the summer of 2006, Isaac and his filmmaking partner, Sam Anderson, indeed accompanied me to Kigali.”
Isaac recounts: “I had just finished film school and thought it’d be fun to teach filmmaking and to make a film while we were doing that. Little did he know where Munyurangabo would lead…?”