Rwanda story: A Tutsi and Hutu are best of friends in Munyurangabo on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki this week.

Lee Isaac Chung on 'Munyurangabo'

Elizabeth Rader June 12, 2009

Early Hungarian film theoretician Béla Bálazs, like many others witnessing the transition from silent films to "talkies," saw cinema as a wordless language, or a visual one. Bálazs was disturbed by the coming of sound and speech, viewing it as a second Tower of Babel that would destroy the universality of cinema. Yet, 85 years later, despite newspaper headlines that would make you believe we are all being ripped apart, cinema— through gestures, emotions, and empathy—remains a universal language.

One can’t help but think about the concept of cinematic language, as well as spoken language, when talking with filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung. Prior to making Munyurangabo —which is set in present-day rural Rwanda, and the first film in the Kinyarwandan language—Chung spent 3 months in China without a translator making a film. He also has created shorts in different languages, and now has his sights on Germany for a future project. The transparency of divisions through spoken language is resonant in his work. As he puts it, "It all seems to unify….[there’s] a universality between the cultures and what we all feel despite differences."

Munyurangabo, is story of two young men, Ngabo and Sangwa, who are traveling to find the man that killed Ngabo’s father in the genocide. However, what starts out as a story of revenge transforms into journey of forgiveness, and ultimately liberation. Beyond the narrative structure of the film, Munyurangabo gives a glimpse into a culture most of use will never even get near enough to touch. From shots showing Ngabo and Sangwa fixing a mud wall on the side of the house, or trekking to get water, and through specific cultural references like Rwandan song, dance, story and jokes, Munyurangabo creates a three-dimensional vision of Rwandan life.

Although Chung’s intentions were to reach a Rwandan audience with his film, the global reception has been tremendous, speaking to the universality of the film, further exemplifying this concept of art as a universal language. It has been an official selection at film festivals around the world, from Cannes to Toronto to Sao Paolo, and won the top prize at AFI in Los Angeles.

Munyurangabo emerged rather organically, as a class project. After getting married, Chung decided to join his new wife (who had been volunteering as an art therapist in Rwanda for the past three summers) in Rwanda. Upon learning that there was a group of 15 young students in Kigali who had a passionate interest in learning about filmmaking, Chung decided that this was the best avenue for him to contribute. He has always felt that the best way to learn about filmmaking is to simply go out and make a film. That is just what he and his students did. Chung, along with two of his friends from home, went to Rwanda and trained the crew, and even used some students as part of the cast. This resulted in what he describes as a completely collaborative effort between the Americans and Rwandan locals.

Surprisingly, the project that took him all the way to Rwanda didn’t seem particularly daunting to the filmmaker. He said that as a low-budget film, and as his first feature film, he felt that, "we didn’t really have anything to lose." And the language barrier? Also not a problem, having filmed prior projects in other languages Chung knew that as a director, there is something that transcends oral language in film. He says, "I remember having read in some interview with Jim Jarmusch that he didn’t feel that directing in a different language was that difficult and I felt that was true… I could tell that the take was good, or the acting was right…."

The greater task for Chung was bringing authenticity and truth to the project as an outsider looking in. He achieved this through extensive interviews, speaking to Rwandans and survivors of the genocide. The collaborative nature of the production also contributed to this authenticity, using his 15 students, many genocide orphans and returned refugees, as the cast and crew, lending their own stories and experiences to the script to create an intensely personal film.

Chung mentioned his love for Chaplin films in our discussion—how he likes to show them to his students in Rwanda because they contain a kind of "magic," and can bridge cultures with cinema. The magic of Munyurangabo may be of a different sort, but like the silents a century before, capitalizes on cinema’s broad and potentially universal reach.

Elizabeth Rader is a student at New York University and’s summer intern.