Geneva Anderson digs into art

San Francisco Film Society review: “Munyurangabo” Lee Isaac Chung explores Rwanda’s Lost Generation, screens Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, San Francisco, June 12-18, 2009

Sangwa and Munyurangabo from Lee Isaac Chung's "Munyurangabo."  Image courtesy of Film Movement.

Sangwa and Munyurangabo from Lee Isaac Chung's "Munyurangabo." Image courtesy of Film Movement.

It has now been 15 years since the tragic genocide in Rwanda which in 100 days claimed an estimated 800,000 Tutsi lives at the hands of Hutu power.   As abstract and distant as that event may have seemed to outsiders, the pain has lingered in Rwandan society and the young children who suffered the traumatic massacre of parents, relatives and friends are now young adults and are still grappling with issues of loss, vengeance and healing.      “Munyurangabo” is a compelling feature film that follows two Rwandan young men– roommates and best friends—one Hutu and one Tutsi– who are part of that lost generation as they set out on a journey with a ominous mission of retribution that quickly turns into much more for each of them.   The fact that the film was co-written and directed by Korean-American Lee Isaac Chung, who must have been a youth himself when the genocide occurred and that it was shot on location in less than two weeks with non-professional actors makes it all the more intriguing.  It is also the first narrative feature in the Kinyarwanda language, a Bantu language which is spoken primarily in Rawnda but also in Southern Uganda and in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The story opens in a bustling open market in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, as Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) steals a large blood stained machete from a vendor and hides it away in his backpack.  He later meets up with Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) who has spent their hard-earned money, that was earmarked for bus tickets, to buy himself a colorful shirt, forcing the boys to hitchhike and walk.   The story unfolds slowly in bits and pieces and parallels the slowness of life that is a reality in Rwandan villages where families labor all day at their small plots and at attending to the very basic necessities of life.  As the boys make their way along the roads and dirt paths of rural Uganda, we are struck by the land’s lush and fertile beauty and at the same time aware that these may have been killing fields.   While their final destination is not revealed, the boys intend to make a brief stopover in Sangwa’s village, which he left three years ago for undisclosed reasons. 

Sangwa’s homecoming is the story on the surface.  His mother greets him with unconditional love, cuddling him and feeding him with a spoon and delights in his gift of fabric and soap.  His father (Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyinka) cannot contain the flurry of emotion bombarding him and lectures Sangwa sternly about abandoning his family and about the meaning of honor and responsibility.   Later, he forgives Sangwa and praises him lovingly for his work repairing a foundation wall of their mud hut. 

As happy as Sangwa’s parents are to be reunited with their son, old wounds start to fester when they learn that Munyurangabo is a Tutsi.  As his parents instruct him to abandon his trip and to remain in the village and to build a life with them, we can’t help but wonder how they acted during the massacre.  Were they at all complicit with the Hutus who carried out the killings?   This element of doubt is critical to our understanding of the gyrations that Rwandan society went through as friends, families and neighbors turned on each other.  As Munyurangabo is treated more and more as an unwelcome guest, we feel for him and sense his volatility.  He is triggered by the negative vibes coming from Sangwa’s family and equally by the deep love between Sangwa’s family which causes him to mourn his parents, both dead, all the more. 

After very real and raw awkwardness and avoidance, Sangwa tells Munyurangabo that he has doubts about their journey and about accompanying Munyurangabo to find and to kill the Hutu man who murdered his father.   What unfolds is a remarkably real and intimate story, stark and penetrating.  Edouard B. Uwayo’s poetry is masterfully used as a backdrop, conveying what is not said, what cannot be said by these characters who are forced to become men before our eyes. 

Resources abound on Rwanda but Philip Gourevitch’s “The Life After”  in the May 4, 2009 New Yorker is excellent, as is the magazine’s podcast “Rwanda in Recovery.”   JUSTWATCH, The International Justice Watch Discussion List is an online searchable forum which captures daily international news coverage of international war crimes tribunals for Rwanda (and ex-Yugoslavia) as well lively discussion of related issues including the conflicts which gave rise to the tribunals, the International Criminal Court and international humanitarian law (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes).  

“Munyurangabo shows June 12-18, 2009 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, San Francisco.  Screens at 2:15 pm, 4:40 pm, 7:10 pm, 9:25 pm.

June 16, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment