“Munyurangabo” is one of the rarest movies Cinema 100 has ever brought to town. It has been screened only a handful of times outside of film festivals and when it plays this Thursday, its Cinema 100 audience will be one of the largest it has ever attracted.
I saw it last summer in Seattle during a “one week only” engagement. That Saturday night screening, in spite of a rave review in the Seattle Times, had only two people in attendance. I’ll never forget the other person turning to me when it was over and saying, “Wow, that was fantastic! Why are we the only ones here?”
I didn’t have a good answer for her. We had just experienced one of the most beautiful, mysterious, and unique movies I’ve ever encountered. It’s a movie that I instantly summed up in my mind by one word, “honesty.”
The movie follows two young men, Ngabo and Sangwa, as they travel to the home of a man who allegedly killed Ngabo’s father. They, or at least Ngabo, intend to kill the man.
Along the way, they visit the home of Sangwa’s parents. His father is bitter, angry. He considers his wayward son to be thoughtless, useless. Much of the movie centers on Sangwa’s attempts to reconnect with his father. Essentially, “Munyurangabo” is the tale of two sons and their fathers.
The movie was filmed by American schoolteacher Lee Isaac Chung who was visiting Rwanda to teach a filmmaking class. It is most memorable in two ways: its scenes – based on improvisations using regional non-actors – feel very much alive and full of the unexpected and its visuals of the Rwandan countryside are eye-popping, vivid, and vibrant.
Everything about the movie feels like a natural, organic creation by people simply telling about their lives and about their reality. This truthfulness about the life and people of Rwanda is what I initially described as “honesty.”
The movie is also enigmatic. The first scene shows us a young man stealing a machete from a street market during a scuffle, but we don’t know why he does so until much later. The final scenes involving the killer of Ngabo’s father are puzzling. Why do we see Ngabo standing in the road holding the machete and moments later in the same stance without the machete? I expect interesting conversations following the movie.
Director Chung also had the courage to do something quite startling and unusual. As the climax draws near, the movie suddenly stops instead of racing toward the expected. After spotting the machete in Ngabo’s backpack, a man recites to him a poem in a musically rhythmic cadence. It is a plea for a new Rwanda as a land of freedom, unification, and equality – and free from slaughter. It’s an amazing moment.
I’m dedicating this review to the finest movie critic in the English language, Robin Wood, who passed away recently. It was his passionate review in “Film Comment” magazine that first brought this beautiful movie to my attention. He memorably – and accurately – summed up the movie with three words, “intelligent about life.”
“Munyurangabo” has not been rated by the MPAA. It is suitable for all ages although it is deliberately paced and requires some fast subtitle reading during one crucial scene where a poem is recited.
The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, February 11 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.