In the next couple of weeks, I will be posting my "Best Films of the First Half" list, just as I did last year. High on the list will no doubt be Munyurangabo, a fictional film about post-genocide Rwanda that I saw at the City of Angels Film Festival earlier this year and which totally blew me away (watch the trailer here). I met the film's director, Lee Isaac Chung, after the screening and later had an in-depth interview with him for Christianity Today. You can read that interview here.
The background of the film is fascinating. In the summer of 2006, Chung went to Rwanda as a volunteer with Youth With a Mission (YWAM), the Christian ministry that his wife Valerie worked for. Chung and Valerie, who had a background in art therapy, decided that their best gift to Rwanda's youth would be to help them use art to work through the traumas and horrors they'd been through in the 1994 genocide. Chung, who studied film at the University of Utah, wanted to teach filmmaking and allow the kids to tell their own stories, "to let the culture speak for itself." The result of that summer filmmaking class was Munyurangabo.
But Munyurangabo has since become much more than a class project. The film played at many of the world's top festivals in 2007 and 2008, including Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, London, and New York. It won the grand jury prize at the AFI Festival in 2008, and has been thoroughly praised by critics. Variety's Robert Koehler described it as an "astonishing and thoroughly masterful debut … the finest and truest film yet on the moral and emotional repercussions of the 15-year-old genocide that wracked Rwanda."
Here are what some other critics have said of the film:
"an intermittently lyrical and genuinely affecting work that at times even emits the shock of the new." -Elbert Venture, indieWIRE
"Unlike Terry George's earnestly melodramatic 'Hotel Rwanda,' Mr Chung's film, the first narrative feature in the Kinyarwandan language, leaves the violence off screen and in the past. But the enormity of the 1994 massacres - during which at least 800,000 Tutsis and dissident Hutus were killed, many by their own neighbors acting on the orders of the Hutu nationalist government - is if anything underscored by the absence of graphic physical evidence." -A.O. Scott, The New York Times
"Among the most remarkable aspects of the film is its total lack of condescension—none of the Noble American putting things straight for the ignorant natives. One would never guess, without prior knowledge, that the film was the work of an outsider. Chung, one might say, has given it to the people of Rwanda, allowing them their voices without intervention—that, certainly, is the impression the film gives, even as its complex narrative structure suggests otherwise." -Robin Wood, Film Comment
"It's the film's emotional closeness to these two young men, communicated both via cinematographic proximity as well as the narrative's concentration on their tormented condition, that leaves a gut-wrenching impression, with the sight of their hands and feet packing mud to be used to solidify a house's crumbling wall, or a conversation in which the camera assumes the position of the listening party, providing a clear window into their beleaguered hearts and minds. Upon reaching his destination, Munyurangabo meets a man who recites (in a fierce single take) a from-the-gut poetic lament for the past and plea for the future. It's a verse that leads Munyurangabo to question his vengeful aims, though as befitting a film so thoughtfully attuned to the country's divisive personal and social conflicts, any measure of optimism is ultimately tempered by the understanding that, 14 years after the genocide's end, Rwanda remains an open wound." -Nick Schager, Slant