This review was originally published at Good Letters, the Image blog.
Sangwa’s family stands in a line, raising their picks, and striking the ground again, again, and again.
In writing about director Lee Isaac Chung’s first feature film, Munyurangabo, it may seem strange that I’m singling out this lengthy, unremarkable shot of the characters farming. After all, this is a suspenseful story about hatred destroying a friendship between two young Rwandan boys, and a quest for revenge against a killer.
But there are no inconsequential moments in Munyurangabo.
This scene of tilling the soil is important to me for several reasons. It represents for me the wages of sin spelled out in Genesis 3:
Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.
Further, it shows me a picture of present-day Rwanda, as commoners struggle to cultivate hope on ground that recently ran red with the blood of genocide.
Attending to the plot, I find joy in this image. For these farmers are a Hutu family reunited. The father is striving to bring his prodigal son Sangwa—gone for three years—back into the daily rhythm and routine.
But I see the trouble brewing as well. These farmers are being watched. Surprising his family with his return, Sangwa has brought along a friend—’Ngabo, a young man of the Tutsi, and thus an enemy of the Hutu. Sangwa’s father despises his visitor, while ’Ngabo simmers with rage. Sangwa’s family reminds him of all he once enjoyed. Machete in hand, he’s on his way to kill the man who slaughtered his family.
Investigating futher, I find that this scene of hard-working farmers is loaded for other reasons too. The director, describing the scene, comes to a new realization about its personal significance for him. “Perhaps that scene is autobiographical in a way,” says Chung. “I’m not sure other American filmmakers would have enjoyed filming the farming scene…as much as I did. A lot of my memories of farm work involve me working with my dad and hoping that the way I work gains his approval.”
How does a filmmaker, born of Korean immigrants, brought up on a farm in rural Arkansas, end up making a critically acclaimed film, the first feature in the Kinyarwandan language?
Frederick Buechner defines true vocation as that place “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” That’s how Chung went about making Munyurangabo. When his wife Valerie, an art therapist, decided to travel to Rwanda to work with survivors of the 1994 genocide, she invited him along. He inquired to see if any Rwandans wanted to learn how to make a film. After sketching out a story with his friend Samuel Anderson, he went to Rwanda with the Christian missionary organization Youth With a Mission (YWAM), and began to teach fifteen Rwandans the tools and techniques of the art.
Munyurangabo is the film they made together.
As I consider what farming has to do with filmmaking, I can find a lot of poetic common ground. Unlike movies pumped out weekly by the Hollywood machine, Chung’s film feels “organic.” It comes from the soil of his subject. Rather than giving Western viewers a guilt trip by exploiting Rwanda’s pain, he makes a movie by Rwanda and for Rwanda.
“I tried to make Munyurangabo a cinema of listening rather than self-expression,” Chung tells me. “I think this was what helped us make a successful film. I didn’t want to tie the Rwandese actors and crew to my vision, but continued to ask how the actors should act, how the dialog should be. It felt like a documentary approach at times.”
Actors, voices, scenes, stories—even the jokes—they’re all so authentic that Chung may lose some Western viewers who want more accessible and familiar entertainment. Moment to moment, I’m challenged to think for myself. I experience my own emotional responses rather than those triggered by manipulative music or other familiar cues.
What moves me most about Chung’s work is its uncompromising portrait of a people he has clearly come to love. He offers no false hopes. Reconciliation, peace, wholeness—such goals demand as much toil as a stubborn field. But neither does he leave us in despair. Capturing the faces, voices, land, and light of Rwanda, he paints a picture full of questions: How will this war-torn land ever be healed? Is peace possible?
Or, as words from Isaiah 51:19-20 remind us in the film’s epigraph:
These double calamities have come upon you;
Who can comfort you?
Ruin and destruction, famine and sword;
Who can console you?
Your sons have fainted.
They lie at the head of every street,
like antelope caught in a net.
They are filled with the wrath of the Lord
and the rebuke of your God.
Still, by giving his Rwandan friends this film—and the lessons learned in making it—Chung contributes to their healing. “There is a Rwandan saying that ‘a man’s tears flow on the inside,’ which can mean one should keep his or her emotions hidden. This is true in terms of everyday conversations—but art, dance, song, poetry, or film [can] prove to be a powerful medium of mourning for the Rwandese.”
And he adds, “[This] is no different from how art is necessary anywhere in the world.”
Chung is striving to sustain his students’ filmmaking aspirations by overseeing a new Rwandan film production endeavor. Practicing their techniques, sharpening their tools, they will continue the work of listening and looking for hope. Thus, the work of these humble artists, like the farmland labor of Sangwa’s family, is an ongoing toil carried out in the expectation of a life-giving harvest.