I suppose I will always have a soft spot in my heart for "Munyurangabo," a masterful film from Korean American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung and one of the finest examinations yet of life in the African nation of Rwanda 15 years after the genocide that devastated Rwanda as the world sat by and did nothing.
"The Peaceful Critic" was the presenting sponsor for "Munyurangabo" during the recent Indianapolis International Film Festival, a decision made by yours truly solely on the basis of the film's subject matter and without having screened the film first.
There could be no finer film for "The Peaceful Critic" to begin its mission of bringing attention to films and filmmakers attempting to make a positive difference in society. "Hotel Rwanda" was deservedly recognized by Oscar, and "Shooting Dogs" widely acknowledged as a more authentic retelling of Rwanda's genocide, but "Munyurangabo" is far and away a more compelling, authentic and emotionally honest examination of the impact the genocide had on everyday Rwandans.
"Munyurangabo," also known by the American title of "Liberation Day," is the story of Ngabo (Jeff Rutagengwa). We are first introduced to Ngabo as we witness him stealing a machete from a crowded Kigali market with his friend, Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) by his side.
The two young men leave Kigali on foot, embarking on a journey that initially appears without agenda. They stop to visit Sangwa's parents, whom he has not seen in three years. His mother (Narcicia Nyirabucieye) is in most respects your typical doting mother, while his father (Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyinka) expresses bitterness at his son's absence and his lack of maturity.
It felt a lot like my own visits home.
Before long, we learn that these two best of friends are actually quite different. Sangwa is Hutu and Ngabo is Tutsi, and the journey the two young men share is to allow Ngabo to exact revenge upon the man who murdered his father during the genocide.
Where Chung's direction excels is that "Munyurangabo" never becomes a typical revenge flick, however. "Munyurangabo" is about the journey of these two men, how both of their families were impacted by the genocide and how that impact continues to play out in their individual lives and their friendships.
Chung, along with co-writer Samuel Anderson, have crafted a film that avoids the inherent drama of the genocide and, instead, looks deeply into the eyes of the Rwandans who survived and now must live on while knowing what has occurred in their homeland.
As the visit to Sangwa's home extends itself, the tension between the two friends intensifies both due to the natural jealousy Ngabo feels over Sangwa still having a family and partly owing to the tribal differences.
Patiently, "Munyurangabo" unfolds and the lives of these two young men become molded by the journey they are undertaking.
Filmed in Rwanda utilizing almost entirely non-actors, including the two leads, and in the Kinyarwanda language of the region, "Munyurangabo" is often so naturalistic that it feels like we've been invited to intimately share the life journeys of those we see onscreen.
As Ngabo arrives at his destination, Chung incorporates into the action one of the most stirring monologues in recent years. Ngabo encounters a local poet (Edouard B. Uwayo, Rwanda's real life poet laureate) who has, discreetly, noticed the machete that Ngabo carries with him. With compassion and intentionality, the poet unfurls a poem he is to share at a ceremony the next day called "Liberation is a Journey." The poem, emotionally reminiscent of Edward Norton's monologue from Spike Lee's "25th Hour," is a perfect and unforgettable segue into the decisions this young man is about to make.
Filmed on a modest budget of $40,000, "Munyurangabo" is undoubtedly the best film yet that addresses the Rwandan genocide and the life that has followed. Beautifully photographed and patiently directed by Lee Isaac Chung, "Munyurangabo" doesn't manipulate the emotions or get tangled up in Hollywood style dramatizations. Instead Chung and his stellar novice cast simply keep it real...real honest, real intentional, real vulnerable and real true.
Ever so often, an American director defies American-style filmmaking and produces a truly unique and memorable film. "Munyurangabo" is truly a unique and memorable film.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic