MUNYURANGABO is one of many films playing in the 16th African Film Festival
in New York City. This year’s theme, Africa in Transition
, takes an “introspective journey across the African continent…creat[ing] a vision of Africa's future through a deconstruction of its past.”
Lee Isaac Chung’s debut feature, MUNYURANGABO, is a story of two best friends—Sangwa, a Hutu, and Munyurangabo, a Tutsi orphan—trying to reconcile the past in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Stealing a machete from market, the boys set out from Kigali for the countryside to avenge the murder of Ngabo’s father by a man the boy barely remembers. The ensuing journey pits the friends against history and memory, threatening a village and nation’s collective hope for reconciliation.
The son of Korean immigrants, Chung was an unlikely candidate to tell an African story. Growing up on a small farm in rural Arkansas, he studied biology at Yale before abandoning med school plans to pursue filmmaking, though Africa couldn’t have been further from his mind.
But when he got married, his wife—who had spent time volunteering with Kigali-based Youth With A Mission—wanted him to return to Rwanda with her.
“I needed to find something I could do while I was there,” Chung says. And since he had a Master’s in film from the University of Utah, he figured he might as well teach cinema. The best way to do that, he surmised, was to make a film with his Rwandan students.
The script for MUNYURANGABO was based largely on personal interviews conducted with survivors of the Rwandan genocide. People were receptive to Chung’s questions and expressed a desire to see an “authentic” cinema arise from Rwanda—rather than a Western one, a la Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April.
With donations from family and friends, and a hefty sum from his own pocket, Chung bought used equipment on eBay and drafted students from his class as the crew. His actors were regular people, many of whom had backgrounds similar to the characters they portrayed—such as Sangwa, played by a real-life runaway.
Given the prevalence of non-actors in the film, a good deal of the scenes had to be improvised, which posed a challenge to production.
“It required a level of bravery to accept that we didn't know what we would be getting on a daily basis,” Chung said. All doubts aside, critics at the Berlin and Toronto film festivals praised the film unanimously. Variety called it the “discovery of this year's Un Certain Regard films [at the Cannes Film Festival],” while Chung garnered an Independent Spirit Award nomination as "Someone to Watch."
What more, MUNYARANGABO is the first feature film ever written in Rwanda’s Kinyarwanda tongue. This was a deliberate choice on Chung’s part, given his discomfort over the fact that a majority of popular films set in Africa are written in English for western audiences.
“We are told two things,” he says. “That the only value to be found in Africa, and the only voice worth hearing is a Western voice, a Western face, a Western culture. Also, that the only impetus to watch a film is not to see another culture, but really to see ourselves within that culture.”
Chung calls himself an “unabashed critic” of Hollywood’s approach to African cinema. The goal, he says, is to see Africans telling their stories in their own voices—much like filmmakers Abderrahmane Sissako and the late Ousmane Sembene.
"I hope Rwanda would have its own masters," he says. To that end, he continues to teach film classes there every summer, while hard at work finishing his latest flick, Lucky Life.
Iquo B. Essien is a writer/filmmaker completing a Master’s in film from NYU/Tisch School of the Arts. She received a 2009 Hedgebrook Writer’s Residency to complete her debut novel, ALLIGATOR LEGS, which she is adapting into a screenplay. For more info, visit: http://www.alligatorlegs.blogspot.com.