When viewing the primal landscape of the beautiful country of Rwanda, it is hard to imagine that only a short time ago the land was awash with the blood of 800,000 people. No film more fully captures the residual pain resulting from the 1994 genocide than Munyurangabo, an intimate and deeply moving first feature from American director Lee Isaac Chung, the first film ever made in the Kinyarwanda language. Shot in only 11 days using local actors who were orphans of the genocide, Munyurangabo centers on the friendship between two teenage boys, Sangwa (Eric Dorunkundiye) a Hutu and Ngabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) a Tutsi named after the great ancient Rwandan warrior Munyurangabo, subtly weaving the story of their relationship with a plea for reconciliation in Rwanda.
Chung, a 28-year-old Korean-American also shot, edited, and co-wrote the film with Samuel Gray Anderson, though much of the dialogue is improvised. The film opens with two close friends walking down a rural road with their arms around each other, ostensibly on a journey to visit Sangwa’s parents whom he has not seen in three years. It is only later that we discover the real purpose of the trip, but we have some idea from the stolen machete that Ngabo is carrying. Telling them that he is on the road looking for work, the boys visit Sangwa’s parents in their rural village and it is a loving reunion, especially with Sangwa’s mother (Narcicia Nyirabucyeye) but there is conflict with his father (Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyinka), a recovered alcoholic, who becomes angry about his son’s desertion of the family.
The family is poor and there is little food but they accept their circumstances without complaint, drawing water from a hillside stream, manually tilling the soil, and living in a house made of mud bricks. The visit becomes even more strained when Sangwa’s father complains about his son’s friendship with Ngabo who is a Tutsi. Ngabo acts more as an observer than a participant and spends most of his time with Gwiza (Jean Pierre Harerimana) an old friend of Sangwa who tells fanciful stories. His feeling of isolation becomes exacerbated when Sangwa’s father, after Gwiza becomes sick, tells Ngabo that he has brought nothing but trouble to their house.
Feeling guilt and shame, Sangwa works in the fields and helps repair a brick wall on their home which is in danger of collapse to get back in his family’s good graces, but it is not to be. The short visit becomes an extended stay but the boys cannot escape the terrible memories of the ethnic discord of the past. Their friendship is torn apart when Sangwa decides to remain at home and not follow Ngabo on his now revealed mission to enact revenge on the man who killed his father, and their breakup is described by Film Comment’s Robin Wood as, “among the most moving in my experience of cinema.” In a scene of overwhelming pathos, Sangwa’s father learns of their plans and banishes his son from his house forever.
One of the most powerful scenes is when Ngabo, now alone on his mission, encounters Rwandan poet Edouard B. Uwayo at a roadside café when he enters the town to find the man who killed his father. Uwayo reads his poem “Liberation is a Journey,” a passionate lament for his country’s troubled past and an expression of hope for a new Rwanda free of ethnic conflict and with equality for all. His poem leads Ngabo to question his vengeful aims, though he still harbors hatred for his father’s killer and decries the fact that he can no longer remember his father’s face because his mother, who died shortly afterwards, destroyed all of his photographs.
Munyurangabo has a strong point of view but, under Chung’s sure direction, it is a deeply human odyssey that never becomes preachy or didactic. Like Sin Nombre, a film about Mexican immigrants directed by another young American, Cary Fukanaga, Munyurangabo always feels authentic, moving seamlessly from a story of estrangement to one of spiritual redemption and ending in a fevered dream. It is a remarkable achievement that deserves to be widely seen.