Sunday, May 24, 2009

MUNYURANGABO gets a week run at AFA; quick chat with filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung

Open your movie with a Hutu, a Tutsi and a machete and most informed viewers may well expect a bloodbath. That director/co-writer (with Sam Anderson) Lee Isaac Chung begins MUNYURANGABO, his first full-length film, in this manner might indicate that the filmmaker possesses whatever is the Rwandan word for balls. Or chutzpah.

But wait: Mr. Chung is the offspring of Korean immigrants who settled in Arkansas, which puts a different spin on things, as does the fact that, instead of a bloodbath, he has provided us with a sermon -- about family, responsibility and moving on.

This sermon is often artless, sometime affectless, generally sweet and never cloying. How you accept it may depend on your tolerance for amateur actors and the "art" of improvisation, for there are a lot of both in this 97-minute movie in which two boys on the verge of manhood make a trip to settle old scores. Ngabo (above), the taller of the two, is Tutsi, while his friend Sangwa is Hutu. When they stop for a visit with Sangwa's family, tribal prejudices come to the fore.

That's it, as far as plot is concerned, but along the way we observe some pleasant everyday moments: tilling the field, carrying water and -- most interesting -- re-enforcing the sagging wall of Sangwa's parents' home by mixing, then smacking, mud into its cracks. We watch a tribal dance (above), see superstition at work and meet a young Rwandan poet (below) who is the most alert, alive, immediate and specific thing in the movie. (When this guy recites his "poem," you may wish you had access to a rewind-and-play-again button.) Sangwa is tugged alternately by the pull of family and friendship, while Ngabo feels increasingly betrayed. Yet the relationship between the two boys is never made clear or very interesting -- though almost everything around them proves so. We get little sense of what has brought them together or what common interests, if any, they share. Everyone else in the movie seems to command more attention, if not respect, than do our two lead characters.

The film's finale, also journey's end for Ngabo, combines the otherworldly (maybe it's superstition/religion) with experience, growth and perhaps a dollop or two of wishful thinking. If the ending seems something less than earned (you may find it more so than I -- and I encourage you to see the film, as it's unlikely that you've witnessed anything similar to it), the movie still takes us to a land most of us know only from the massacres that took place 15 years ago. So it's salutary to see the country now and be reminded that machetes are used for clearing the brush, as well as for severing limbs. Swords into plowshares, anyone?

When TrustMovies was given the opportunity to do a private Q&A with the filmmaker, he quickly made a list of questions but then found that most of them were answered by the information on the excellent web site of Film Movement, the company that is distributing MUNYURANGABO. You can find out much about the fascinating history of the film -- how and why it was made -- as well as the filmmaker's bio-- here. So, in this interview we'll simply concentrate on a few of the specific questions that arose while watching the film.

TrustMovies: What was your production budget in term of dollars, and from where did the budget money come? Did the country of Rwanda pay for any of it? Or the Christian Relief Base, YWAM?

Lee Isaac Chung (shown left): The production budget was $25-30,000. I funded it myself with money I had saved from not going to an expensive film school, and savings my wife and I had. Some friends and family donated certain items we needed, including all of the 16mm film, which was a large part of the 25-30k budget. We would have loved to have had other people pay for the film. Rwanda and Christian relief bases don't have money to spare. Some production company in Europe told us they would have funded the film had they known what we were doing, but we were just three twenty-somethings with very little to our names and a ten page script, no one would give us money. Because of the success of the film at festivals, some of the Rwandan students I trained have gone on to get governmental funding for films. I'd rather the Rwandan money go to them anyhow - 100% Rwandan productions.

Did your movie change much from your original concept during the editing process? If so, how and why?

I had to edit the film in my mind while shooting because of the financial limitations and time. Knowing how the film will edit together keeps the production running faster with fewer coverage shots. We shot with a 3:1 ratio and filmed in 11 days, so it didn't leave many options for editorial choices. But much of the chaos and disorder of the film occurred on the set; Sam Anderson and I were writing scenes in the car ride to the location. We initially planned a three part story that follows three different young men living on the streets, with the first part taking place in Kigali. After the first day of shooting, it became clear that the story should focus on the last two stories, Sangwa and Ngabo, and this is why the narrative seems to make Sangwa the main character, only to subvert that when we begin to follow Ngabo. It was a happy accident in the end, but when the decision came to delete the first part of the film, I had a very sleepless night.

The relationship between the two young men appears to be one of friendship rather than a love/sexual thing. But the parents seem concerned about this -- or does that suspicious "Do you live together?" question from the mother mean something else?

I was thrown off by the question of the characters' sexuality when I first received it in a Toronto screening, but it has become quite common. Perhaps it is frustrating to anyone who asks because I am fine if the characters are gay or if they are not - it never occurred to me. I tend to like films that portray deep relationships between men, maybe they are gay, maybe they are not. Many recent films seem to be about how close, platonic male friendships can be funny because the men are close and are not gay. Is it intimacy itself that is alien for us? Sorry about this soliloquy, but I think the question points to an odd place in our culture in which we engage with categories more than the existence of the other. Perhaps it works either way for the film. The parents are suspicious of the friendship because they are obsessed with simple categories: Tutsi or Hutu, gay or straight, "friendship" or "love/sexual."

Till I looked it up, I imagined that the Rwandan massacre took place in the last 5-10 years, but no -- it's been 15 years since it happened. Do you feel your film represents with relative accuracy the point to which the healing process has grown now?

I think we tried to be realistic, but I don't want to claim that it's representative of the current situation, which is too complex and would require a great number of films and filmmakers to explore. In shaping the story and creating the characters, it was very important for the cast and crew to question constantly, "is this real, is this honest?" To that end, I believe we tried as hard as we could, and if an honest and realistic focus on these two characters provides some insight to a larger situation, we would all be happy.

But the healing process now, fifteen years after the genocide, is hard to describe accurately. Millions of genocidaires live among the victims. The government seems to be sincere in trying to facilitate reconciliation. What I can say is that my encounters in Rwanda leave me at two extremes, either amazed at the healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation that is possible for all of us, or horrified at the level of chaos and violence just below the surface. Maybe it's best if that keeps us from being complacent, knowing that reconciliation and healing is not a passive process.

It was very interesting, via your film, to visit the country now, rather than back then, as with all the other films I have seen about Rwanda. How, currently, is the "peace" kept between the Hutus and Tutsis. Are there still the occasional violent incursions by individual or group? Who rules?

There is certainly peace and very little violence, and Rwanda is one of the safest countries in Africa now. Some violence remains in the Congo border, where many of the Interahamwe fled after the genocide. Like many places where war or oppression occurred, it's the younger generation that has less at stake in holding any grudges. It's safe to say that tensions still exist, but I imagine it will pass with new generations - forgetting more so than forgiving? Reconciliation seems to be a rare phenomenon in our common history, and the poet in the film makes a compelling argument on what true reconciliation means (they were the poet's own words, not mine): he describes a man living in present poverty and injustice, which to me means that reconciliation hasn't happened until such a man is free from violence, whether it's by treating and preventing diseases, providing economic justice, or stopping war.

For me the lengthy scene toward the end with the poet was the most immediate and specific part of the movie. I read your description of the actor/poet and his background, and this made me wonder: Did Rwanda have a history of verbal poetry and did speeches by its poets prior to this post-massacre period have an important place in its culture?

From what I have encountered, speech itself is a sacred act in Rwanda. Various events and social gatherings require all participants to give a small speech, and they take this act seriously. They made me do it too. It's nice to develop more of a respect for spoken words. But sometimes I would skip a birthday party because I didn't want to come up with a speech or sit through twenty speeches. As for poets, I think there has always been a great respect for poetry in Rwanda. It's ironic that much of the genocide was exacerbated by extremists who took over radio stations to spew hate on the air. Hopefully speech can have the opposite impact through poets such as Edouard Bamporiki. When he gets in front of an audience and recites a poem - the art of the wordplay, rhythm, and themes - it goes to the soul. I'm so honored to have him in the film.

Anything else you'd like to talk about or stress. This is your chance to "soapbox" or just bring up a point that other interviews may have left out.

After thinking about these answers, I hope it doesn't seem that the only reason to watch this film is out of some sense of social responsibility; I realize that this type of feeling can be implicit, especially given what the film addresses and where it is set. I hope the film offers some of the magic and beauty of cinema, to transcend time and space and ourselves, altogether, especially where we need it: small dark confines of the city. My constant question in Rwanda was about the Rwandan audience, how to speak and create for them. The international response to the film has been overwhelming, and I hope the premiere in New York will continue to make the world seem like a smaller and more unified place to me than I originally suspected.

Munyurangabo opens Friday, May 29, at Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue (at 2nd St.), screening daily at 7 and 9pm, with additional 3 and 5 pm screenings on Saturday and Sunday. Co-writer/director Lee Isaac Chung will do a Q&A after the 7pm show and then will introduce the 9pm show at both the Friday and Saturday evening screenings.

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