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Revelation in

Rwanda Lee Isaac Chung’s Munyurangabo

Munyurangabo. Independently produced, low-budget films usually don’t rate their own movie posters, but if they did, picture the title on this one: its letters begin By Livia Bloom brave and measured, then march down the side of the one-sheet, shrinking, turning, growing increasingly cramped, then sliding off the poster altogether and onto the exterior theatre wall. But tongue-twisting though it initially appears, once non-Rwandans haltingly sound out the name of the film that first time, the word gathers speed. After a while, it becomes so much fun to say that it’s tempting to slip the word into conversation at irrelevant moments. Surely the film’s now-scrapped English title, Liberation Day, lacks the original’s joie de dire. The remarkably assured debut of Korean-American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, who directed, edited, and photographed, Munyurangabo is the first film made entirely in the Kinya-rwanda language, a language Chung does not speak. Recently married, he first travelled to Rwanda with his wife, who had been several times. She taught an art class at a local Christian mission there, while he taught still photography and film production. Chung enlisted the help of his college friends and co-producers Samuel Anderson, with whom he co-wrote an initial nine-page story outline, and Jenny Lund, who recorded sound. Chung used improvisation to flesh out the script, and with his class of 15 local students as crew, shot the movie over 11 days. “As we would film, I’d ask, ‘Would this situation happen?’ and they would tell me yes or no,” Chung explained after the film’s premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, an honour which surprised the whole team. The film’s elegant, intimate plot focuses on two 14-year-old boys, Ngabo (Josef “Jeff” Rutagengwa) and his friend Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) and their journey from the capital city of Kigali. Graceful, brooding, and mysterious, with red-and-white sneakers peeking out from beneath midnight-black baggy jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt stretched across his taut frame, Ngabo carries a deadly cargo in his backpack: a tarnished, blood-stained machete, filched from a market during a brutal street fight. Awkward and heavy, the blade holds sinister echoes of the recent past: used at close range, it was the primary weapon of the 1994 genocide, which claimed the lives of more than 800,000 Rwandans—including Ngabo’s father and, in one of the countless instances of documentary truth bleeding into this fiction film, the parents and other family members of the two lead actors, close friends in real life. A self-conscious avenging angel, Ngabo sets out to find the murderer, even as his father’s image slowly recedes from his memory. The boys make a detour to Sangwa’s family home in the countryside, where his mother, a faded lavender polo shirt tucked neatly into her bright-patterned wrap, greets her son with tender affection, finding food for him even when she herself goes hungry. Much like a character in one of Ozu’s traditional Japanese dramas, Sangwa’s father is profoundly disappointed in his son’s choices, and believes that the boy’s time away in Kigali represents a shirking of his familial obligations. Sangwa is expected to shoulder a serious social and economic burden in this severely depressed region and to work with his parents in the fields. He fills the family water in two filthy plastic gasoline containers at the trickle from a pipe nearby and lugs them home without complaint. Despite summer 2008 issue 35

lee isaac chung | cinema scope



their strength and benevolence, Sangwa’s parents are slowly teaching their son their own prejudices, driving a wedge between the two friends and ultimately stripping Ngabo of the only companion on his lonely quest. Yet Chung combines the film’s aura of ancient myth with surprise and suspense. Now travelling alone, Ngabo approaches an apparently empty roadside house. On the porch broods an older boy, who eyes both the handle of the stolen machete poking from Ngabo’s bag and the wad of crumpled cash in his hand. When the older boy approaches menacingly, the episode seems destined to end in theft, bloodshed, or both. But the film swiftly veers in a startling direction, cutting to a close-up of the older boy, Edouard B. Uwayo—a student in Chung’s class, the film’s production manager, the poet laureate of Rwanda’s Liberation Day official ceremony, and a filmmaker himself—who recites an eloquent plea for peace, rhythmic words flowing like a brook suddenly un-dammed. When the poem ends, Ngabo finds a man—perhaps his father’s killer, or even a representation of his father himself—lying on a pallet in a small house. He is covered by a rough blanket despite the afternoon sunlight, and is stricken with AIDS. Throughout the film, key details and circumstances hidden in plain sight have 20

cinema scope | lee isaac chung

been slowly revealed, and in this scene, Chung masterfully discloses a meticulously constructed final mystery. While at the outset the film appeared to be focused equally on the two boys, the mysterious, tonguetwisting title is revealed to be the full version of Ngabo’s first name, an appellation which means “great warrior.” The revelation is powerful and understated, re-defining him as the film’s true subject; all along there was more to the boy’s name, heritage, friendship, and mission than initially met the eye. While his name portends a continuation of the violence that first shattered his world, in Ngabo’s final action he demonstrates—in the face of a death that does not adhere to the discriminations of the human world—that cycles can perhaps be broken, that arms can perhaps be laid down.

CINEMA SCOPE: You’ve said that Munyurangabo was intended for a Rwandan audience. Did you approach the project differently than you would have for a Western audience? LEE ISAAC CHUNG: I think so, because in order to hold up in Rwanda, it became important that the film be utterly realistic. We decided not to explain things that Westerners might not understand but that people in Rwanda would. Also, there you don’t say summer 2008 issue 35

“Hutu” or “Tutsi” anymore—really, it’s almost racist—but we play with the way that characters say these things in the film, so there are scenes that resonate more with a Rwandan audience than they would with an audience from any other place. SAMUEL
ANDERSON: Even for those of us who worked on the film, there’s no way we could get anywhere close to the level of emotional identification a Rwandan audience would have with those characters, and with their sense of humour. A Western audience would be more removed from the film—to start with, we have to read the subtitles. We can know the history of their country, but it hasn’t shaped us and scarred us. SCOPE: It’s incredible that you were able to make such a moving film in a language that you don’t speak. CHUNG: Most of the translation was done through this friend of ours who’s very talented, young, and good at knowing the nuances of the languages. He was also the buffer between me and the others. When I wanted to say something mean, when I was angry, he would tone things down to the crew. SCOPE: What kind of things made you angry? You must have faced some unusual challenges. CHUNG: Aside from the obviously frustrating things that happen on set, there were the cultural things about filming in another country, where after you get angry you feel completely asinine for the things that made you angry. For one thing, in Rwanda you’re getting huge crowds around you during shooting that are difficult to control, and these crowds create a chaotic atmosphere, like during the scenes in Kigali. I think the scenes with the largest crowds are not in the film, partly because I was so distracted filming them. SCOPE: What feeling did you get from the crowd? CHUNG: I think it was just curiosity. The unemployment rate in Rwanda is close to 90 percent, so day-to-day you have a lot of people who don’t have anything to do, work-wise. Guys looking like us out there with a movie camera were clearly entertaining and interesting. I was auditioning actors in one place and this crowd came up. The translator was like, “Just go somewhere, please!” And the crowd said, “But if we go there, there aren’t white people making a movie!” SCOPE: How did you divide up your shoot? CHUNG: The first five days were spent in that first location in the countryside. We filmed two days of the hitchhiking scene. Then we filmed the walking and the shirt-changing scene for about two days. The last few days were spent with Ngabo on his journey, deciding whether or not to carry out his revenge; that was basically just Jeff and me with the camera. SCOPE: What was cinema like for you growing up? summer 2008 issue 35

CHUNG: I was born in Colorado and grew up on a peartree farm in Arkansas. Where I lived, a very rural place, cinema mostly meant big blockbusters. There was one theatre called the Twin Razorback where I saw E.T. (1982) for the first time. SCOPE: Were you very involved in farming? CHUNG: I think my dad never thought I did enough, but my memory of childhood was that I did a lot of it! Our schedule was based around the different seasons, so in early summer we had to groom the trees. Then there’s the harvest; and after that we’d have to manage all the fruit we had, so I’d help out with that. We had 50 acres; it was not terribly big. My dad studied at an agricultural trade school in Korea. Most people go to the city when they move here from rural Korea, but my dad had worked in a factory, and wanted to farm in the US. ANDERSON: On set, Isaac claimed that that would be his signature: a farming scene in every film. CHUNG: All of life encapsulated in a farming scene. SCOPE: You completed a film production Masters program at the University of Utah after finishing a biology degree at Yale, correct? CHUNG: Yeah, maybe around my final undergrad year I started watching more films. I think that’s when I was introduced to Wong Kar-wai and Terrence Malick—they hooked me, in a way. I started watching Godard, Truffaut; I also took this course in video art taught by Michael Roemer, an independent filmmaker who often worked with Robert Young. Interesting guy; he made some great films that I think don’t get enough attention. SCOPE: What first brought you to Rwanda? CHUNG: My wife had been going for several years, doing volunteer work with this Christian outpost called Youth With a Mission (YWAM), which sends missionaries all over the world. I think she had a choice between Russia and Tanzania, and she thought she’d like to see Tanzania. She worked there for a few months, and since Rwanda is a neighbouring country, she then got in touch with the Rwandan base. SCOPE: Were you religious growing up? CHUNG: I’ve been a Christian all my life; I don’t remember ever not being a Christian. The way that I approach it has changed—I think dramatically— throughout the years. For instance, in Arkansas, I grew up in the very conservative Southern Baptist tradition. Even at Yale I was involved in a very evangelical community. But I think being in Utah alone for two years and not really having much interaction with people shaped a lot of the way I am now. Utah was a place where I was specifically engaged with cinema and with art, while trying to figure out what I wanted to do as an artist. I wasn’t married at that lee isaac chung | cinema scope


time, so it was a good time to be a little bit more active about figuring out what mattered to me. SCOPE: The mission of YWAM is to “Know God and make Him known.” Was religion a big part of the classes you taught? CHUNG: Because we were part of this organization, our approach was more or less to teach the craft. There was always a kind of Christian theme in what we were doing and the way that we were approaching cinema, but maybe not in the way that you might assume as a Westerner; more in a philosophical way. SCOPE: Without that context, would you have approached the film differently? CHUNG: No, because I believe completely in making sure that your commitment is to the work, to the artistic integrity of what you’re making. That’s one of the things that I was trying to teach them: My desire for all of you is not to make Christian films, but if you make a film that is honest, then whatever you identify with is going to come through. I showed them secular, non-Christian films. They loved the Dardennes, for instance. They loved Chaplin. I showed Days of Heaven (1978). I showed Truffaut. They loved Bicycle Thieves (1947) a whole lot. They want to go more in this neo-realistic direction when making films, taking the camera into the streets. SCOPE: How long was the class that you taught in Rwanda? CHUNG: We were in Rwanda for nine weeks, so the first five weeks we spent teaching, then preparation, and then the shooting. The students—maybe the youngest were 16 or 17, and they went up to age 32. We had a performance at the end, and we put the photographs they had taken on display. The first weeks, most of the teaching was on still photography—all manual, so they had to learn how to work the light meter, aperture, shutter speed, and focus. SCOPE: You explained all this with a translator at your elbow? CHUNG: Yeah, it took some time. But I didn’t have as much time with them as I would have liked. The last time I went, in July of last year, I taught from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day for two weeks, and then we would have individual tutoring sessions. That was crazy. We’re going to go back again in June, and I think I’m going to teach editing. SCOPE: The locations in the film seem very carefully chosen. How did you select them? CHUNG: Locations are a very intuitive process; something just resonates. After I got back from Rwanda, I was reading Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time. In picking locations, he would search out places that seemed to have some sort of spiritual presence or significance to them. That’s the kind of thing we tried to do in Rwanda. I would go by car and motor22

cinema scope | lee isaac chung

bike—that was probably the most fun. The motorbike days I went alone, and that’s when I found the locations for the final scene where Ngabo meets his father, the apparition or vision of his father. I found that place around that same time of day, with the light hitting all the grass that way… SCOPE: You met the actors who play Sangwa’s parents after selecting their house as a location. CHUNG: Yes. Edouard, the poet and our production manager, was working with me on locations for a while, and he had gone down to a small training program around that area once before, so we drove there together. That was the first house we went to. It looked just right. The level of deterioration…there looked like there was history to the house. It seemed like they were in the process of making a very great house but never quite got there. There are a few things about the house that are different from the neighbouring houses, like the way the walls have all those holes. If you see houses that have been worked on more, the walls are completely cleanly daubed. I asked why they hadn’t done that, and they seemed embarrassed. They said they ran out of money, so they couldn’t. SCOPE: Did you find the pacing of the film during the editing? CHUNG: I think a lot of those ideas came before we shot it, actually—the idea that things would not be revealed except as the film goes on. We had a pretty detailed timeline of the film and where certain things would be revealed, so in editing, those things didn’t change too much. We indicated that at this point, we would raise the stakes a bit and show more, the conflict would go a little higher. We knew all along that the full name would be revealed later. SCOPE: I noticed that a crew member has that name, too. CHUNG: Yes, our script advisor, Munyurangabo Noel. He’s the reason that we named the film Munyurangabo. He was also very proud of his name, and he schooled us for a while on how to pronounce it. He would go, “Mu.” And we would go, “Moo.” And he would go, “No, Mooo!” “Yu.” No, yuuu!” The story in the film is the story of his name; and he was so proud of this story. He was also named by his father, who was wrongly imprisoned after the genocide, and finally released last year. ANDERSON: We always have to explain the title. If people don’t know anything about it, they’re like, “Oh, am I going to understand this film?” It was called “The Muny Project” by our lab—they never took the time to learn the name! We had an English title for a while, Liberation Day, but it never seemed to fit so we decided to stay with the Rwandan title and put up with people not always being able to pronounce it. summer 2008 issue 35


CHUNG: We thought that Westerners could learn one CHUNG: It’s based on the poem Lucky Life by Gerald Kinya-rwanda word in their lives. Stern. We’re using a lot of poetry from that collection SCOPE: In the press, there have been conflicting expla- within the film as well. It’s going to be drifting in nations of the film’s ending: whether the dying figure and out; either the characters read it or it will come with AIDS is Ngabo’s father, his father’s murderer, in as a voiceover. So again, the film will be rooted in one of their ghosts, or an unknown man. Did you poetry, but for Lucky Life, I had an idea for the narrative beforehand and then the poem just fit into it, so intend that the ending be open to interpretation? CHUNG: Actually, we had a bit of a literary model when we shaped the narrative and then fleshed it out. We writing the conclusion: Toni Morrison’s Song of took cues from the poem and its emotional journey, Solomon. The main character takes a journey to find and tried to create the same emotional sense in his father’s roots, and much that happens is magic the film. realism. You see his ghost, or his presence, become SCOPE: You’re not making the new film with a class, real—not in a fantastic sort of way—but you don’t so you won’t constantly be teaching on set. Will that know if it’s mental or spiritual. From the beginning change the film’s tone, or your approach? we said, “We’re going to have these presences.” CHUNG: We treated it very seriously with the class. We said, “This is your job.” They were even getting paid ANDERSON: And we had more of them during shootfor what they’d done. For me, the way that I learned ing that we ended up cutting out. CHUNG: Right. In the beginning of the film, they were cinema was just to work and do it. To make it like a going to pass Ngabo’s father, and Ngabo was going to class exercise I think would downgrade it, and make make eye contact. Then he would look back, and the the potential for what they were doing much less man wouldn’t be there anymore. So we had that, but than it actually could be. So we treated them very I didn’t shoot it right, so we didn’t put it in the film. I seriously, we trusted them quite a lot with what they think it was more obvious in the outline. We wrote did. That’s why it doesn’t feel like a stretch now to that he would lay down to go to sleep and see his work with a crew. I told them that they were the best father, and then wake up to find his father gone. Now, crew I had ever worked with. They were so motivated, he just sees his father. I like it better this way: more it was amazing. They also took ownership of the entire film, as much as you could ever wish for. I’m open, more mysterious. SCOPE: Your next film is also based on a poem. How hoping the same happens with the next one will you make the transition from abstract poetry to narrative film? summer 2008 issue 35

lee isaac chung | cinema scope


Lee Isaac Chung and Samuel Anderson Interview  

"Revelation in Rwanda" Interview with Lee Isaac Chung and Samuel Anderson by Livia Bloom. Cinema Scope, Spring 2008.

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