Thursday, August 4, 2011

Review – Munyurangabo

August 4, 2011

Munyurangabo – Rwanda, 2007

There’s a moment in Lee Isaac Cheung’s film Munyurangabo when a stranger sees a machete peeking out of a young man’s backpack and decides that the best course of action is not to confront him about his intentions, but to tell him a poem. The poem, the stranger explains, is going to be recited during the commemoration of National Reconciliation Day. The stranger then turns to the camera and begins reciting his long lament, during which he questions whether liberation has truly come to Rwanda. In between stanzas, he breaks into a smile that hints at a happy finale. It doesn’t come. The scene shouldn’t work. It stalls the main storyline and makes whatever transformation may come later partly the result of the elegant words of a character that most audiences would probably have no connection to.

The scene made me recall the end of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece The Great Dictator, when Chaplin drops character, speaks in his own voice, and talks about the inhumanity of war. Yet like the Jewish barber’s words in The Great Dictator, the poet’s words do not diminish the film which contains them. In truth, I have no idea how else the scene could have progressed. A confrontation would likely have seemed forced, and it would have been unrealistic for the machete to have been simply ignored. Therefore, why not tell a poem that aims to shed light on all of the healing that is still needed? The young man certainly needs it. It turns out that the actor reciting the speech is a poet named Edouard B. Uwayo, and the poem he recites in the film is a poem he wrote and performed at an actual commemoration ceremony. It’s likely then that audiences in Rwanda would have recognized both him and his heartfelt words and understood their importance.

Munyurangabo is essentially a road movie about two young Rwandan men named Ngabo (Jeff Rutaqenqwa) and Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye), who are on their way to do something they shouldn’t. I won’t say what. Ngabo is Tutsi; Sangwa is Hutu. In Rwanda’s bustling capital city, Kigali, the difference matters little. There just two young men in a city of over 900,000 people. Go into the countryside, though, and the difference may matter a great deal. In those areas, the wounds of war and genocide run deep, and people may not judge someone from the other side of the Rwandan conflict by the content of their character. I imagine the years immediately following a war are like this in most countries.

Ngabo and Sangwa make a stop at Sangwa’s family home, which he had been away from for some time. It’s only meant to be a quick stop; it turns out to be a bit longer. Sangwa tells his parents that he and Ngabo are just passing through while looking for work. Sangwa’s mother (Narcicia Nyirabucyeye) suggests he stay at home and work. The offer is not extended to Ngabo. In fact, at one point, Sangwa’s mothers tells the two of them that there is no food for the whole day, only to feed Sangwa the moment Ngabo is away. Sangwa’s father (Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyinka) goes a step further, reminder his son that Hutus and Tutsis are enemies and shaming him for having brought a Tutsi to his house. His words have their desired effect, and soon a wedge begins to form between these once close friends.

Munyurangabo moves at a slower pace than most films, and this allows viewers to understand the characters and their motivations. We meet Gwiza (Jean Pierre Harerimana), one of Sangwa’s childhood friends, who accepts Ngabo with open arms. When he hears the details of Ngabo’s struggles, he reminds him that they don’t have to remember the past. His health problems suggest it’s not so easy to just turn it off. I also liked the way the film enables viewers to understand the feelings of Sangwa’s father. We may not approve of the way he treats Ngabo, but we never dislike him for it. He is as much a victim of the conflict as Ngabo, yet neither of them is in the right place to be able to see that. There’s also an especially interesting scene near the slow-running fountain where villagers go to get water. There, Sangwa sees one of the young women who live nearby. The two of them exchange a few glances but no words. None are needed. It’s likely that he knew her as a child and that if he stayed, he would try to get to know her a bit better. Upon hearing of this chance encounter, his father mentions something about planning a wedding. He’s only half joking.

Munyurangabo is well directed, and the cast of largely unknown actors deliver amazingly realistic performances. In fact, one could be forgiven for thinking the film were a documentary from time to time. From the cast biographies on the DVD, I learned that Rutaqenqwa and Ndorunkundiye were both personally affected by the Rwandan genocide. I would venture that this is also true for the rest of the cast.

Films like Munyurangabo can be challenging for some viewers. They are driven by characters, not action, and as such, they rarely have what we would consider a complete ending. We cannot say with any certainty that anyone in Munyurangabo lives happily ever after. However, movies such as this one resonate long after the ending credits precisely because of that. They are chapters in the lives of characters we will never see again, and yet we root for them long after the credits have finished. We hope that the characters in Munyurangabo find peace and resolution because in them we see the experiences of a nation struggling to recover from the unimaginable. And in the words of the poet, we hear the question of a nation: Has liberation really come? Munyurangabo gives us a reason to believe that the answer to that question will eventually be yes. (on DVD in Region 1)

4 stars

*Munyurangabo is in Kinyarwanda with English subtitles.

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