01 January 2010

Munyurangabo


I hadn't intended to write anything about Munyurangabo, because other people have done a fine job of it themselves: Robin Wood and Roger Ebert stand out, though others have also noticed the film's power.  But it's one of those movies that if you love it you really love it and you want to proselytize about it.  I figure my first post of the new year ought to be a positive and proselytizing one, so here we are...

I went into Munyurangabo knowing nothing about it -- I had stuck it on my Netflix queue at some point and forgotten why.  This may be the best way to watch it, not because there are lots of plot points to create suspense and surprise, but because it's the sort of film that, for some viewers, could be ruined by expectations.  On the other hand, the story of how the film was made is compelling, and could aid in appreciating its wonders, and though there are a couple of moments that benefit from surprise, surprise is certainly not essential to enjoying the film.  In other words, before you follow any of the links above or read the rest of this post, consider waiting till after you've seen the movie once.  Or just plunge ahead as I try to explain why I think it is such an extraordinary work of art.

Munyurangabo was made by a Korean-American director, Lee Isaac Chung, who grew up in a small town in Arkansas.  His wife had spent some summers volunteering in Rwanda, and he joined her after they were married.  He wanted to teach people filmmaking, and to do so decided to give them the experience of making a real film.  They shot Munyurangabo in eleven days on 16mm film from an outlined script.  It is said to be the first narrative feature entirely in the Kinyarwanda language.  It is a fictional story, but because the actors often improvised, much is based on their own experiences.  (For more on the making of the film, see this BBC video.)

Chung would deserve accolades just for making the movie, regardless of the quality of the final product, but that it is so coherent and powerful is, given the conditions of its making, truly extraordinary.  It is a profound story of friendship, families, and forgiveness.

There is a certain tendency in many of the reviews of the film to refer to it as, in some way or another, "small", but this seems to me to be a mistake.  Yes, if "large" to you means Transformers or Avatar, this is a small movie, but its scope is greater than that of most everything released in any year.  It is obviously a story of the Rwandan genocide and its lingering effects, which is certainly large enough, but there's more: this is a portrait of a particular place and people, but also a careful study of more archetypal subjects, and so it remains a powerfully emotional experience for any viewer attuned to the archetypes, regardless of that viewer's interest in or knowledge of Rwanda.  The performances and situations speak with subtle authority about the risks and rewards and mysteries of adolescent friendship and of family loyalties and expectations.  Beyond that lies the central force motivating the film's plot: the desire for revenge.

Despite what an obtuse and inattentive viewer might think, Munyurangabo is not a movie where "nothing happens" -- there is an awful lot going on within the film's narrative, but the viewer must be not only willing to allow the film its own pace, but to remain active, speculating about the characters' thoughts and motivations from the information given (and given as often visually as through the dialogue).  This is a movie where the actors' faces and, especially, eyes tell entire stories.  It is not a movie where characters are comfortable articulating their emotions and opinions to each other except at moments of crisis (and we all know how reliable and accurate our emotions are at such times).

Dance and poetry in Munyurangabo offer the expressiveness the main characters so often prove incapable of, and so the scene of the festival dance and the poem recited by Edouard B. Uwayo work as both emotional releases and as indications of what the characters could be striving toward if they can find a path toward lives less marred by anger, shame, and fear.  It is no mistake for the last section of the film to shift toward the mystical, for this is the point where the story moves from a mostly straightforward realism into the realm of fable.  The poem is the axis: it exhorts its listeners to move beyond the horrors of the real and toward ideals of forgiveness and unity that may help alleviate pain and animosity while also preventing future horrors.  From this moment, Munyurangabo may think his quest is the same as it was when he stole the machete at the beginning of the film, but a spell has been cast on him.

Chung has said the ending is not so much a representation of how Rwandans are recovering from the genocide now as it is a dream of what might be possible.  The dream's possibility is encapsulated in the rich ambiguity of the final shots.  We do not really know if Munyurangabo and Sangwa have reconciled; we do not know if the image of Sangwa there is a dream (as we might assume Munyurangabo's father's visit was) or if the two friends really are together.

What we know is what we hope: that the act of decency Munyurangabo is performing for the dying man who, he thinks, killed his father may be reflected in the boys' reconciliation.  But we also know it is just as likely that reconciliation is simply a yearning and that Sangwa is wandering the countryside alone and Munyurangabo has abandoned forever the only friend he had.  The ambiguity is irresolveable, and it is that very irresolveability that produces the complex emotional effect of the final moments of a film that is ultimately both inspiring and devastating.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Matt. Your post reminded me to put Munyurangabo in my queue and, following your advice, I didn't actually read until just now, when I'd finished the film. Your notes on the final section are right on.

    I did feel a moment of satisfaction when Ngabo left his father's house for the first time-- I thought that letting the man live but declining to comfort him was a decent balance of justice and mercy. Ngabo's father knocked me out of complacency.

    Thanks again.

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