This is an exciting time for filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung.

He has a new project called Lucky Life, which he is finishing up. At the same time, his directorial debut, Munyurangabo, is playing in select cities across the U.S. and receiving high praise. That’s remarkable, considering he shot the movie in only eleven days. In Rwanda. With a cast of Rwandans who had never acted in films before. Munyurangabo is a Rwandan story, and brings a vision of that war-torn country unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Munyurangabo was reviewed by A. O. Scott last week in The New York Times. Scott wrote,

“Munyurangabo” is both modest and ambitious. Shot in less than two weeks, it trusts that the implications of its intimate, almost anecdotal narrative will resonate in spite of its humble methods. But there is also an arresting audacity in a young American filmmaker’s attempt to tackle the raw and complicated reality of Rwanda, and what is most impressive is the care with which Mr. Chung manages this risky undertaking. He seems to have made this film above all by listening and looking.

In Variety, critic Robert Koehler was similarly enthusiastic:

“Like a bolt out of the blue, Korean American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung achieves an astonishing and thoroughly masterful debut with [Munyurangabo], which is — by several light years — the finest and truest film yet on the moral and emotional repercussions of the 15-year-old genocide that wracked Rwanda. … This is, flat-out, the discovery of this year’s Un Certain Regard batch….”

Munyurangabo won the Grand Prize at the AFI Film Festival, and played at Cannes in 2007.

Chung and his wife Valerie live in New York, but he grew up on a farm in rural Arkansas, the son of Korean immigrants. He now manages Almond Tree Films, a production company he founded with his collaborators, Samuel Anderson and Jenny Lund.

As it so happens, Munyurangabo is my favorite moviegoing experience of 2009 thus far. Next week here at Filmwell, I’ll present a two-part interview with Chung about his experience, about the people of Rwanda, and about the ideas that infuse this film with beauty and revelation.

It is my pleasure to share with you an essay he has written about his life, his heart, and his love of filmmaking.


an essay by Isaac Chung

My grandmother didn’t finish elementary school and lived a daily resignation to poverty and struggle for most of her life. Her illiteracy caused both shame and sympathy for my father, notably because he is a gifted writer. Yet, he remembers the way others revered her in the village because she told stories. They were recollections, simple stories sprung from a memory that gathered passing moments others had disregarded, occurrences with meanings she alone discerned.

My father told me this when I was ten — it is a small footnote in our family history but one that I revisit often. How can storytelling bring a humble woman the respect of an entire village? Then, I remember that even scripture is an epic narrative.

In the 1880s, a great argument arose between the Lumiere brothers and Thomas Edison about their new invention, the motion picture camera.  To this day, no one is sure who invented it first.

Edison’s Kinetoscope featured vaudeville performers and fighting animals while the Lumiere’s captured everyday life; both foreshadowed a division between the US and France that remains today — cinema as spectacle and cinema as art.

One could argue that cinema has become the most powerful form of storytelling in the world. Anti-Western sentiment, especially the type directed against Hollywood, does not deny this contention; it disagrees with the stories.

In the 1990s, Kenneth Nnebue, a businessman in Nigeria, imported blank videotapes from Asia to sell in the local marketplace.  Finding that he had ordered too many, he decided to make a small movie to include on the tapes as an extra incentive to buy.  750,000 sold copies of the film and thousands of imitations later, “Nollywood” is now the third largest film industry in the world behind the US and India. It remains the second largest provider of jobs in Nigeria, after subsistence farming.

They are crudely and quickly shot with over two thousand new titles a year to keep up with local demand for African films.  Western audiences might cringe at the exaggerated acting and stories of HIV and witchcraft, but each of the noisy videos proclaims, “we wish to speak too.”

The art of memory collects disparate details from the past and reshapes them into a harmonic whole. It is a dying art in much of the world where society has less of a demand for remembrance and a greater emphasis on daily production and consumption.   So great is the divide between everyday existence and active reflection that modern storytelling — the cinema — is no longer interested in life. There is a common saying, “I go to the movies because I wish to escape.” Meanwhile, the culture of escape spreads from the West to the rest of the world like industrial haze.

It reaches Rwanda, where, after the tragic Rwandan genocide of 1994, several personal accounts recall that genocidaires liked to mimic Rambo films when slaughtering others, a chilling detail for moviegoers.

In a great irony, Western penitence has invaded Rwanda several times to recreate the genocide for film crews that resemble, at first glance, a military occupation. Its height is reached in HOTEL RWANDA, in which American actors fake African accents in a story that many Rwandans dismiss as overly exaggerated to sell tickets. Its target audience is the West, and as the spectacle — with its prestige, Oscars, and box office data — passes from our minds to obscurity, Rwanda is left with few resources to share its own recollection of the tragedy, to engage in the art of memory.

(My work in Rwanda is:
– A quiet endeavor — to train and equip a group of fifteen Rwandan filmmakers who want to share their stories and transform their nation and perhaps the world.
– An act of resistance — against a pervasive and spreading fog that allows only the powerful to have a voice.
– A remembrance.)

Lee Isaac Chung’s work in Rwanda now supports the original fifteen crew members who worked on Munyurangabo, and the students make their own films and support themselves through the work of making wedding and music videos.

Due to Rwanda’s national 100 days of mourning, and the current crises in the global economy, his business is facing some difficult financial burdens that must be settled by the end of July. If anyone is interested in helping Chung and the Rwandan students cover their financial needs during the next difficult month, or if you would like to discuss Chung’s work and vision, please write to me at, and I will pass your information along to him.

In the meantime, come back to Filmwell. My two-part interview with Chung will be posted soon.