September 4, 2009 / Filmwell
On the heels of Reed’s Metropolitan and Barcelona review comes a companion review by guest …
November 5, 2009
Apparently, this is a Filmwell favorite, as Jeffrey Overstreet has already posted a lengthy two part interview with director Isaac Lee Chung. Chung was kind enough to let us post some of his thoughts. And Ron Reed even posted some screening dates. But as it is playing at this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival, I might as well toss an additional review into the mix.
Munyurangabo is such a quiet, unassuming film that it feels odd to call it a great feat of naturalist filmmaking, but it undoubtedly is. Transit, movement, and flight are common themes in cinema in general. In African filmmaking this common motif has a built-in political dimension that has often led to ham-fisted scripts glossing over the complex mythos of war torn Africa with broad strokes of the white man’s burden. Chung’s first feature film is something completely different. As is the case with Munyurangabo, we often watch orphaned children, refugee families, and migrant workers shifting through landscapes in varying degrees of ruin or reconstruction. But Chung’s graceful attention to this backdrop – one that is now as much a part of global cinema as it is global politics – grants Munyurangabo a sense of innovation that in turn breeds legitimate hope.
We learn early on that young ‘Ngabo and Sangwa are on a journey to kill the man that murdered his father during the genocide. They plan to stop briefly at Sangwa’s house before continuing on, but this visit turns into a lengthy stay made awkward by the fact that ‘Ngabo is Tutsi. Sangwa hasn’t seen his house and family for three years, having fled to Kigali for work and refuge. So we watch the boys interacting with his family, relearning the domestic routines of Rwandan farming, working around the house, and being part of a rooted local community with its codes and cycles. The almost wordless scenes between Sangwa and his mother are masterfully maternal interludes that evoke a sense of healing, as if they are perfectly composed portraits of the balance that had been so horrifically upset by the genocide. (There is a Dutch Master quality to the heaviness of light, clear balance of line and color, and domestic focus in these scenes.) When Sangwa’s father teaches him the proper way to use a hoe in the field, we see the same thing. It is a little glimpse of hope and restoration that is later recycled in Sangwa’s effort to rebuild a crumbling wall of their house or carry water for the family. The tension in the film emerges from the different ways Sangwa and ‘Ngabo respond to these glimmers of possibility.
Though the film is a bit episodic, these aren’t just documentary vignettes composed and ordered in such a natural way. They are actually richly political snapshots of Sangwa and ‘Ngabo’s respective cultural journeys. It turns out that Munyurangabo is not just about two boys and the different ways they respond to the memory of “home”. It is about a culture faced with the task of forgiveness, with finding ways to handle the fresh memory of terror and genocide. In a seamless move from verité to a magical realism that seems just as natural as the rest of the film (which is steeped in sunlight, earth, water, mud, etc…), Chung suggests that the way out, at least for ‘Ngabo, involves a memorializing love for victims that manifests itself in breaking the cycle of violence and retribution. This makes every act of forgiveness a political statement attached to a more abiding social polity than racial division, one perhaps exemplified by the way his and Sangwa’s lives have become so intertwined.
The film was made on a small budget with a rag tag band of orphans and refugees he had met in Kigali. His decision to work with actual film rather than DV adds depth to the natural cinematography that may have otherwise been lost in the flatness of smaller cameras, or dulled by the sense of immediacy that attends a lot of plein air digital filmmaking. Though shot rather quickly, every frame of the film is so thoughtfully composed and that it is hard to believe this is Chung’s first feature length film.
(And thanks, Film Movement, who have distributed two of my favorite films of the year.)