Monday, August 1, 2011

Cinema Rwanda - Munyarangabo's Hypnotic Cinema

Ngabo and Sangwa are on a journey. Once Ngabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) has stolen a machete in a Kigali market, their journey begins. But Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) plans to drop by his family in the countryside, and Ngabo obliges. Sangwa hasn't seen his family in 3 years.

Upon arrival, Sangwa's mother welcomes him with loving arms, literally feeding him with milk when they hardly have anything to eat. But Sangwa's father makes known his displeasure. "You leave me sick," he accuses, "you have no shame." What should have been a few hours' visit soon turned into days as Sangwa tries hard to make up for his father's disappointment. He helps plow the arid soil and fixes their crumbling wall.

It soon becomes clear that Sangwa intends to stay while his father's disgust for their visitor Ngabo grows by the day. After all, Ngabo is a Tutsi, a tribe that has contributed to the country's grim historical past - the genocide that killed thousands of Hutus. It soon unravels that Ngabo's mission was to seek and kill the man who killed his father during the civil war; a father whose face he can barely remember now. What becomes of Sangwa and Ngabo's friendship?

Though the film is directed by a Yale-educated, Korean born film maker who lives in an Arkansas farm, Lee Isaac Chung deftly captures the harsh realities of a country still haunted by their bitter past; that the Hutus and the Tutsis contend with an unpalatable past to work through their differences. Deep seated wounds aren't healed by mere didactic forgiveness.

The setting takes you to a land that cracks from the harsh sun; where houses are baked from mud; meals are a rare occurrence in daily life; and the waters that people drink come from gradually depleting trickles of murky liquid. Local color spills over. I have apparently envisioned of a different Rwanda. The lands here have patches of green, though areas remain uncultivated. The people commune with dirt, grime and sheer poverty, yet people somehow survive from what could be less than the bare essentials.

Chung's camera mostly observes and stares at its subjects. Sometimes, it is static, standing before a door where its characters move around the given location. The director peppers his meandering narrative with hypnotic a capella songs; a compelling dance at the feast, and strains from Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit" (Le Gibet). When the camera turns hand held, as when Ngabo finally leaves Sangwa who's thrown out by his vindictive father, this tack takes you right where our two protagonists are battling for each of their belief.

Ultimately, the concluding portion provides a hopeful gleam of light at the end of a seemingly bottomless pit of misery. Ngabo finally finds the man responsible for his father's death - stricken with AIDS and dying. He is lying on the floor, alone, and begging for water to drink. Ngabo lifts his machete, but is unable to strike the man.

He fetches water instead. Sublime.

Sangwa and Ngabo leave Kigali for a journey.

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