I’ve been looking forward to this moment since 2018.

And it’s kind of cool that it’s happening now, when so many more moviegoers are discovering Lee Isaac Chung’s filmmaking with Minari. When we recorded this, Minari was a dream and a script-in-progress.

Many thanks to Roy Salmond, who not only produced the podcast, but who helped me track it down when it was lost during a podcast transition.

Two summers ago, I sat down with Chung for an episode of the Image Podcast produced by Roy Salmond.

That recording got lost when a new host was hired for the podcast, but I kept digging, trying to find it and share it. And here it is, at last, recovered and restored! Many thanks to Image for sharing it with the word this week while Minari is in theaters and streaming for the first time.

Listen to my new conversation with Lee Isaac Chung here, at Image.


This conversation was recorded at the 2018 Glen Workshop where Lee Isaac Chung taught a screenwriting seminar.

We talked about his filmography — Munyurangabo, Lucky Life, Abigail Harm, and I Have Seen My Last Born. 

And — here’s something I’ll never forget — Isaac invited me and several other Glen Workshop participants to stage a reading of the script for Minari. 

I played the part of 6-year-old David, who represents in many ways the child that Isaac himself once was, exploring with his grandmother on that Arkansas farm. Writer Morgan Meis played David’s father. Poet Devon Miller-Duggan played David’s grandmother. Rose Hlaing Faissal was his mother; Valerie Chung was his sister! What a family!

Lee Isaac Chung introduces an early reading of the Minari screenplay for a live audience at the Glen Workshop in August 2018.

This winding discussion covers much of Chung’s filmography up to that point. Chung’s latest film, Minari, is getting rave reviews by critics and fans alike, and the Glen Workshop is thanked in the credits. We’re grateful to have played a small part in encouraging Chung’s creative vision.

Valerie and Lee Isaac Chung with me just after the Minari reading at the Glen Workshop in August 2018.

 


THE PREQUEL: A 2009 CONVERSATION

That 2018 podcast recording wasn’t my first long conversation with Lee Isaac Chung. In fact, he has visited both my own Glen Workshop film seminar and my Seattle Pacific University classroom via Skype to talk with workshoppers and students.

But our first conversation was an epic correspondence in June of 2009 upon the event of the home video release of Munyurangabo by Film Movement. It was originally published at Filmwell, and now lives in the archives of The Other Journal: Part One, Part Two.

Here — re-published at Looking Closer for the first time in its entirety — is that 2009 conversation.


A CINEMA OF LISTENING AND LOOKING:
A CONVERSATION WITH LEE ISAAC CHUNG

By Jeffrey Overstreet

June 8, 2009


American moviegoers didn’t let the title Ratatouille stop them. But can they pronounce Munyurangabo?

So try this: moo – new – ra – NGA – bo.

When I asked director Lee Isaac Chung how I should pronounce the title, he told me that he asked his friends in Rwanda. “I am told that there are no accents for the syllables,” he says, “but I have heard consistently that the syllable I emphasize should be stressed—nga.”

Chung heard and experienced a lot of interesting things as he made this, the first feature film in the Kinyarwandan language. It’s a movie about the memories, trials, and daily experiences of those Rwandans striving to go on with life in the aftermath of 1994’s genocidal violence.

It will be a shame if audiences read the premise of Munyurangabo and assume it’s just another Western show of hand-wringing lament over foreign troubles. Chung went to Rwanda to teach Rwandans how to make movies, and he decided that the best way to teach them was to work with them on a new project. As a result, this is a film about Rwanda infused with Rwandese experience.

It follows two teen boys—Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) and Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa)—in a long walk across the country. Sangwa and ‘Ngabo travel from the Kigali marketplace (from which they’ve stolen a machete) across the country to the small farming community where Sangwa’s family have continued working the soil since he ran away three years earlier. Sangwa’s homecoming is a tense and emotional affair, but it is also complicated by the fact that his traveling companion is one of the Tutsi, and Sangwa’s father still bears a deep hatred for the Tutsi.

Likewise, ‘Ngabo carries hatred too. Seeing Sangwa’s family together—at work, at play, in intimate conversation—he is painfully reminded of all that has been taken from him. And he keeps his machete within reach, a weapon he plans to use when he finds the man responsible for the murder of his family.

It’s a remarkable story, made even more so by the story of its making, and the experience of its director. Chung, whose family emigrated from Korea, have a farm in rural Arkansas where he grew up—not at all the typical Korean immigrant experience. Studying biology at Yale, Chung discovered an interest in the art of filmmaking his senior year, and abandoned his plans for medical school. He studied film at the University of Utah, and became a film instructor himself.

Later, given the opportunity to travel with his wife to Rwanda, in cooperation with the Christian missionary organization Youth With a Mission (YWAM), he inquired to see if anyone in Rwanda wanted instruction in filmmaking, and the surprising enthusiasm of the response convinced him to go. With his friend Samuel Anderson, he sketched the outline for a story, and before long, he was in Rwanda developing that story with Rwandan testimonies, working with Rwandan film students as his crew.

Munyurangabo opened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, and garnered high honors at other festivals through that year, including the Grand Jury Prize at the AFI Fest.

It was with great admiration for the quality of Chung’s work, but also for the obvious compassion in his heart, that I sought an opportunity to discuss his project with him.

These are excerpts from our conversation.

PLEASE NOTE:

Our conversation does include discussion of the narrative, including the ending.
If you wish to avoid spoilers, you may wish to bookmark this interview and read it after you’ve seen the film.


Jeffrey Overstreet:

Congratulations on the distribution of Munyurangabo! Now, instead of just reading about the film, people everywhere can see it!

Lee Isaac Chung:

It has been great to finally get to answer people when they ask when they can see the film.

Overstreet:

Have you shown the finished film to many Rwandans? How do they respond to it?

Chung:

I have shown it to small audiences. I’ve had trouble organizing a large screening for the public in the country. Recently, the national television station broadcast the film, but I haven’t gotten any feedback from it. There is only one station in Rwanda, so that should be good for the ratings at least.

Overall, the responses from Rwandese who have seen the film have been more fulfilling to us than the great response we’ve gotten internationally.

Of course, like any audience, there are people who find the film boring or too long, or lacking in gunfights. But I’ve been very encouraged by the overall response. I haven’t encountered anyone in Rwanda who has felt that this is not a Rwandese film, so I am very proud of that.

Overstreet:

Did you learn to speak much of the Kinyarwandan language?

Chung:

I learned a little. It’s a difficult language, and any time I answer in Kinyarwanda, I receive two minutes of, “He’s speaking Kinyarwanda! That’s so good!” So I haven’t gotten very far in practicing conversation.

Some of the pronunciation mirrors Korean, so I think speaking Korean helps. But speaking some of the words and getting your mind into the pronunciation and rhythm—I think this helps one to get inside the Rwandese mind and heart a bit. I wish I could speak more, but it’s hard to find any text to help learn it. It’s a beautiful language.

Overstreet:

Did you decide to go to Africa, and then start imagining a story? Or did you decide to tell this story, and then find a way to go to Africa to make it?

Chung:

To be honest I think the entire idea came almost all at once. My wife Valerie had been wanting to go back to Rwanda, and she wanted to take me for the first time. I knew that when she goes to Rwanda much of her work is in teaching. That’s changed for her, because she’s actually an art therapist now. She goes and works with people traumatized by the genocide and tries to help them along, with art.

At that time, thinking about what I wanted to do if I went to Rwanda, I thought that the experience I have in teaching is generally in filmmaking. So I asked the Youth with a Mission base if there was any sort of need in Rwanda for teaching video production. They contacted me rather quickly [saying] that they actually had a group of students who were very hungry to learn how to make movies. From that point I knew that I would have these students. I knew that I would go with my wife.

The idea to actually make a film followed pretty quickly after that too, just because I didn’t think there was any better way to teach cinema than to actually make a film. And making a film we needed to be very serious about it. Not just treat it as some sort of exercise, but actually try to form something together, as a group, and hope that it could be a very solid film. So I think that idea came about six months before we left for Rwanda in 2006.

Overstreet:

How did you meet your wife Valerie? And how did you get to know your writing partner, Samuel Anderson?

Chung:

Valerie and I knew each other in college. Sam and I did too; we had one year of overlap in school, and we just kind of knew each other. And then once Sam moved to New York, somebody got in touch with both of us and said that we should get together and chat because we’re both doing film.

I had been openly suspicious about meeting with Sam, because I thought that maybe his tastes would be very different from mine. You always have these feelings that maybe somebody doesn’t know anything about films even if that’s not true or that’s not fair. We got together and realized that we both had the desire to make similar types of films.

We watched Mizoguchi’s* Life of Oharu together, around that time. Maybe just a few months after we had first started meeting, I entertained the idea with him of maybe going to Rwanda and making this film with me and getting involved in the writing process. Munyurangabo is kind of the film that brought us together and so we still work very closely.

Overstreet:

How much of your story did you envision before you started work in Rwanda? And how much was plotted out as you worked with the people there?

Chung:

Sam and I began a series of long email exchanges and weekly meetings in which we discussed our thoughts on the film project. Slowly, we organized an outline of a story of a genocide survivor who embarks on a journey of revenge.

The original idea was that this character would travel to the countryside with a companion, and a family drama would play out. The character would then travel to the killer’s home and decide not to commit revenge. The elements that contribute to this decision changed very little from writing to editing, but the outline for the family drama was very minimal.

We knew the character should encounter the earth—by earth, I mean dirt and mud—but we knew little else.

I arrived in Rwanda a month ahead of Sam, and I continued interviewing and researching this story while writing long emails back to Sam twice a week. This is how we wrote out the rest of the middle portion of the film, including the details that the two characters are from different ethnic groups, and ethnic tensions rise while they are at Sangwa’s home. I didn’t know the reality of this kind of situation until I got to Rwanda and had long conversations with individuals who underwent similar scenarios.

By week seven of my stay, we began shooting with what we had, a ten-page outline of numbered scenes. From there, the entire cast and crew shaped the dialog and other details within each scene as we shot them. The process was very organic, and came out of many intimate conversations—a wonderful way to make a film, a [process of] constant discovery and interaction with others.

Overstreet:

This story deals with such painful issues. Was it challenging to tell this story in Rwanda? Were the actors or the locals uncomfortable with the subject matter?

Chung:

Part of the reason we were able to film so quickly is that the Rwandese who were involved were very enthusiastic about tackling this subject. Even now, my students desire to speak about the genocide and its aftermath in their films.

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—which is no different from how art is necessary anywhere in the world.

The only cultural tension arose from my bad New York City habits of wanting to move faster or prioritize work over relationships. Life in Rwanda helps to break these bad habits.

Overstreet:

Your film does not explore the religious beliefs of Rwandans. But there is a scene in which a character appears from beyond the grave. Did this idea bother the locals? Or is this a natural part of their storytelling?

Chung:

This is an element that Sam and I developed outside of Rwanda—the use of magical realism within the flow of the narrative. I don’t know if this is a natural part of their storytelling, but it didn’t seem to be out of the ordinary for the Rwandese who helped make the film or those who have seen it.

I visited a person’s home where a neighbor died, and they believed it was because another family member had arrived with evil spirits. I tried to incorporate this into the film when Gwiza gets sick; the father blames Ngabo for this and other bad developments.

Overstreet:

The characters tell such unusual stories in this film—especially Gwiza. Were these stories that you wrote for the script? Or were they given to you by the locals?

Chung:

Almost all of the stories come from improvisation. Oral storytelling is a very important part of the culture, and I was used to giving speeches wherever I would go. It’s part of what people do when they get together—they tell stories, they share words, their thoughts.

Sam and I envisioned in the outline that Ngabo would encounter moments of oral storytelling. Later, by accident, we discovered the talents of Edouard Bamporiki—and his poetry seemed to be the perfect finale to all of these stories.

It’s tragic and ironic that the oral tradition was part of the genocide, with radio broadcasts by Hutu extremists inciting many of the killings. We wanted to memorialize the root of the oral tradition—how it builds community, family, and, through powerful poems such as Edouard’s, the entire nation.

Overstreet:

Gwiza’s jokes and stories are amusing, but I can’t say that I always understood them. What is different about Rwandan storytelling compared to Western storytelling? Were Gwiza’s stories about the animals some kind of social commentary?

Chung:

Gwiza is played by Muronda, a student in the class I was teaching. Many of the students said that Muronda is the funniest man they know, and his stories and slapstick humor made everyone laugh throughout the shoot.

For his scenes, I asked him to tell his own stories, and the cast and crew ruined a few takes because they would laugh loudly at his jokes. But when they were translated back to me, I had the same response. I had no idea what was funny. I’ll be honest with you, I get the jokes now and I’ve come to appreciate them. I was walking in my neighborhood and saw a woman walking her little dog with clothing on, and the absurdity of what she was doing to this poor animal made me laugh and remember Muronda’s jokes.

We’re far removed from the Rwandan perception of animals. Animals serve a certain function and role there. That’s not to say they are mere objects in Rwanda—they’re not—but they certainly aren’t bound and humiliated to serve as a kind of toy that mirrors human identity. In Rwanda, an animal is an animal; anything else would be absurd. A dog is a dog, a chicken is a chicken. So when Gwiza says he saw a chicken wearing tight pants, that’s very funny; a goat gives birth to a dog—this is funny too. Dogs that wear boots and sweaters are just as funny.

I hope I’m not driving away a certain demographic of readers now. I grew up on a farm, so please extend me some grace.

Overstreet:

Your cast was made up of Rwandans who had not acted in films before. Both Eric Ndorunkundiye and Jeff Rutagengwa are fantastic. I was impressed at how they seemed like natural actors, so convincing that they seemed oblivious to the camera. Was this challenging for them?

Chung:

During casting, it became a running joke that everyone in Rwanda is a good actor because it’s partially true. I don’t know if it is a cultural phenomenon, but I was surprised daily during the casting sessions.

For instance, I was scouting for locations and found the perfect house for the central part of the film—the segment at Sangwa’s house. Edouard Bamporiki, the poet of the film, served as our production manager, and he encouraged me to audition the owners of the house to be in the film. I was skeptical because the owners had been farmers their entire lives, and I assumed, ignorantly, that they would feel nervous with a camera and crew watching them. Their audition was incredible, as though they both came alive and had been practicing to act on camera for a long time. They play Sangwa’s parents in the film, very significant roles.

This seemed to be the case for many of the actors we cast. There were a few people during casting sessions who were not very good, but most were very natural.

Overstreet:

Were Jeff and Eric friends before this project? They work very well together.

Chung:

Part of the reason I wanted to cast them was because they were already best friends before the shoot, and many people in Rwanda told me that the two looked and acted like brothers. I thought this would be an important dimension to the film, since it demonstrates how arbitrary the label of Hutu and Tutsi can be.

Overstreet:

In reading other interpretations of your film, some see it as a message of hope. I tend to see it as an expression of questions more than messages. ‘Ngabo’s final decision certainly gives me hope, but the last shot of the movie suggests that reconciliation may be very difficult. What do you hope to convey with that last shot? Do you see your film as “a message of hope,” or a question—or both?

Chung:

I’m very happy to hear this perspective, since Sam or I didn’t think we were writing a film that projects a message of reconciliation. We wanted to present an image of reconciliation, but we didn’t feel we knew the answers to how reconciliation should take place.

More than that, we wanted to highlight the desire for reconciliation and offer a scenario for it that could even be regarded as a fantasy. Perhaps faith is a lot like this, requiring the act of imagination.

The final image is certainly not meant to be realistic, and it was important for the characters to have their backs turned to each other. The reality of the situation in Rwanda and other parts of the world is that progress and reconciliation are rare. Edouard highlights this in his poem-reconciliation is more than an absence of violence. True justice will occur only when all tragedies (poverty, war, disease) come to cease. Edouard doesn’t say that liberation can come if we do x, y, and z. As you say, he asks a question, “How can liberation come?”

Part of me understands the impossibility of this reconciliation on earth, but the other part believes and hopes that it will [happen]. In the meantime, the work is important. I think that’s what the creation of art can embody—the act of memorializing, mourning, preparing-the act of waiting, which I think isn’t very far from the act of questioning.

Overstreet:

What did you learn about filmmaking through this experience that will be useful to you in future projects?

Chung:

I often feel like I have forgotten much of what I learned through the experience. I recently shot another film, and it felt like a first film all over again. Maybe it’s good to remain on edge with every film, but Munyurangabo was very stressful and exhausting, and Lucky Life—the new film—was moreso.

One aspect that stays with me is that the subject matter needs to be central to the film, and that each film should serve the subject.

I tried to make Munyurangabo a cinema of listening rather than self-expression. 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.

Overstreet:

Why did you choose to use film instead of video? What, for you, are the advantages to film? (The result, by the way, is gorgeous.)

Chung:

Several reasons went into this decision.

The first is that I knew I would not be using any lighting, and Rwanda has a very bright sun. Film has a greater latitude than video, meaning that film can capture a scene that has very bright light and dark light in the same image. Video would either blow out the bright spots to look like pure white or all the areas in shadows would carry no detail.

Second, the electricity in rural areas is sparse, and cameras built in the 60s and 70s are made with very few electronic parts. I only needed to charge my belt battery two or three times during the shoot.

The third reason is that film carries with it a better rendition of color and a type of poetic look that comes from the film grain and the way it looks in projection. I thought a 1970s look would be interesting for the film—to film it in 16mm, the way news reports were made before the advent of video. I thought this would create a more timeless look, since the film, in some ways, is meant to play like a Rwandese fable.

Film is much more expensive, of course. But it helped keep us honest in treating this project very seriously and professionally.

Overstreet:

I’ve read that you’re wrapping up your next film, Lucky Life.

Chung:

On June 15th I go in and finish the final cut and edit the film. From there we’re sending the print to Paris. They have a lot of people who plan to watch the film. In Paris, we have a sales agent who’s basically representing the film.

Overstreet:

Does Lucky Life feel like a progression from Munyurangabo? Are there things you began in Rwanda that you’re continuing in this project? Or was this like starting over?

Chung:

It feels like a little bit of both.

A few things from Munyurangabo inspired me [in making Lucky Life.] One was treating the film like poetry in a way, or elevating poetry to being the driving force behind the film. I think I tried to that do more in Lucky Life. And the actual dramatic structure of the film—it’s very much based off the poem by Gerald Stern called “Lucky Life.”

But in other ways people who have seen the film say that it’s very, very different. I think that that’s true. People seem to be surprised that the same filmmaker is involved at times. So, yeah—I don’t know what to make of that. I think it might come as a surprise to people who were fans of Munyurangabo and might be expecting something similar.

Overstreet:

Munyurangabo is already inspiring reviewers to compare it to films by Terrence Malick, the Dardennes, and even Spike Lee. What filmmakers—and what films—inspire you in your own filmmaking? Is your filmmaking influenced by painters or other forms of art?

Chung:

The influences change with every film, and I’m a bit of a film nerd. Malick and the Dardennes were a big influence, but I’m not too familiar with Spike Lee. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao Hsien, and Bresson were also filmmakers whose work I revisited before going to Rwanda.

Chaplin films are my favorites of all-time, and I love watching Chaplin with my students in Rwanda; we imitate him sometimes when we are bored.

With Lucky Life, I was inspired mostly by poetry—Walt Whitman, Theodore Roethke, Gerald Stern, and Li-Young Lee. Sam Anderson pointed me to the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Henri Bergson.

I’m sorry if this is becoming one long, pretentious list. As a science major in college, I never encountered these great works; discovering them now has given me much life.

For the next projects I’m developing, I’m falling in love with old genre films, and I’m interested in departing from cinema as poetry and moving on to a cinema of play and energy for the audience.

Overstreet:

That’s interesting. Most filmmakers progress from genre films to art films. After Lucky Life, you’re interested in going the other way. Why?

Chung:

I guess there are a number of reasons for that. I think the primary one is that recently I was just thinking about cinema, and thinking about some of the filmmakers that I’ve enjoyed watching.

These days I’m very much excited about a lot of the filmmakers who were working in Hollywood back in the 50’s and 60’s or even the 40’s and 50’s. I felt that [these filmmakers] were always needing to work in this tension between what they desire and what the audience desires. That’s kind of the difference between a cinema of poetry, as I put it, and genre cinema.

The cinema of poetry, or as some people call it “art house cinema,” [or] independent cinema… it tends to be focused on the filmmaker and the expression of the director. Whereas Hollywood films these days are very much focused on what the audience wants. I’d like to think that both of those don’t have to be so separate and so much at odds with each other, and that somehow within that tension you can find a good film.

I think they did it quite well in the 40’s and 50’s. But these days, it’s far too much geared towards one side. I guess that’s what started cropping up as I was doing the festival run with Munyurangabo, and now preparing the run with Lucky Life.

I’d like to go more to the audience with the film. Hopefully that doesn’t sound as if I’m compromising. I feel as if though that could be a very positive thing.

Overstreet:

If you were going to introduce Munyurangabo to an audience that isn’t necessarily accustomed to art films, how would you introduce it to them? How do you approach introducing contemplative cinema like Bresson’s or Dreyer’s?

Chung:

[I’d tell people that] Munyurangabo … is very minimal, and to not expect anything very much in the way of spectacle. The storytelling style is very understated

What I like to say to people when I am introducing either Bresson or Dreyer is that … you shouldn’t be trying to figure it out as you’re watching it. Much in the same way that a child does when they’re listening to a story, or learning something new, or encountering something new—just take it for what it is. Try not to be guessing the whole time, ‘What does this film mean? What is the message?’

Sometimes you get this sort of magical experience of what’s called ‘the transcendent cinema’, and sometimes you don’t find it. Yeah, that’s what I’d like to think these films do. A lot of them show fairly mundane things, and somehow all of these very random images build up to this very dramatic payoff for whoever is watching—one that makes you feel as though you are transcending all those situations. Some sort of revelation is reached within them.

That type of cinema really excites me. I feel that when a director is able to accomplish something like that, it’s almost the most supreme form of cinema.

A lot of Ozu’s films are like that for me.

Overstreet:

Did you discover this love of transcendent cinema in film school?

Chung:

It definitely happened during film school.

I had a professor who I was very really close to. His name is Kevin Hanson at the University of Utah. And one day he talked about the different forms of cinema that are out there. Then he started talking about this Paul Schrader’s book about transcendence in film. Kevin was a big fan of Ozu and Bresson, and he was always trying to get the directing students or students of production to look at these styles and to consider them as a way of making films.

So I started watching a lot of those films and found that, yeah, they were very moving for me. And that’s basically when it happened—during my two years at film school.

Overstreet:

What do you like to focus on when you teach?

Chung:

I think the thing I might like most is teaching students who are just starting to learn filmmaking. I’ve taught intro courses and I feel like I enjoying teaching those the most. I’ve also done a lot of TA work [on] film history for instance, and auteur theory. I enjoy that side of cinema as well to look at past works and past directors.

But yeah, I do like teaching beginners. I think there’s something great about the beginning steps of anyone who is starting to make a film and just realizing the possibilities and limitations of it.

Maybe it’s influenced a bit by the professor I had when I was at Yale. The last year, I took a course with Michael Roemer. He had us go out and get images of movement, or images that highlight one subject or another. He didn’t care so much about the technical aspect of filmmaking. It was always about the mis en scene, or what could you see in the frame, [or] the way in which we edit these images together. I felt that that class gave me a good [lesson] in realizing that’s the core and meat of filmmaking.

So when I’m teaching, that’s what I try to emphasize.

I noticed that a lot of film instruction tends to end up straying towards the very technical side of filmmaking. That ends up being more of a distraction, I feel, than actually helping to learn cinema.

Overstreet:

I’m curious about your experience working with Youth With a Mission in Rwanda. Were any of the YWAM workers involved in making the movie?

Chung:

YWAM workers allowed me to spend time with their various ministries—HIV/AIDS relief, street kids mentorship, orphans and widows assistance—which helped me to do research for the film.

Also, I partnered with one of the full-time staff members named Serieux Kanamugire, who leads a youth ministry (which includes ages 12-30). He gathered the students who wanted to learn video production, around fifteen total, and they became my students and the crew for the film.

I continue to work with Serieux when I return to Kigali and recently started a video production business with these students.

Overstreet:

The word “mission,” as it is related to Christianity, is a pretty loaded term. I suspect that some may imagine YWAM’s work in Rwanda as an aggressive program of evangelism and conversion. What is your impression of their work in that area?

Chung:

Well, this could be debated for many hours.

Evangelism and conversion are efforts within any organization—secular or religious—when Western organizations attempt to bring change in Africa. A conversion of values and beliefs is a natural part of the effort to solve vast problems within the continent. Sometimes these values are about environmental conservation and the protection of wildlife. Sometimes the values are about water usage and disease prevention.

This answer could fall into the polarizing area of whether or not the evangelical church or organizations such as YWAM have a subversive agenda. But I want to avoid all of those debates and just note that the vast majority of Rwandese are Christians, with one of the highest percentages in the world. As a result, YWAM’s Christian evangelism and “spreading the gospel” resembles the good efforts of other secular groups: prevention of HIV/AIDs, curbing drugs use among street kids, offering alternatives to prostitution, and helping find solutions to extreme poverty. “Gospel work” as an act of sacrifice, service, and love—I don’t think anyone would argue that this isn’t what Jesus Christ would embody. The divisive debates can distract from all of this.

To put it another way, George W. Bush is a big hero in East Africa because his African relief policies have been among the most generous and effective measures of any leader in the world. Barack Obama is also a big hero for what he embodies and his roots to East Africa. Rwanda is a place where the debates about political correctness and ideologies are irrelevant in light of the need at hand; the only question becomes, “Is this helping?” I am a big supporter of YWAM Rwanda because of this.

Overstreet:

So many films made by Christians are “preachy” and blatantly “evangelistic,” but your film avoids any hint of that. Did you ever have any pressure from your friends and contacts to emphasize religious issues in the film?

Chung:

YWAM Rwanda never gave that pressure, nor did any Christian friends or family members here in the US.

I am also a Christian and have been active in a number of churches since becoming a filmmaker. Often there is an implicit misunderstanding that I must be a filmmaker who is trying to spread a message or evangelize with my films. I have a lot of opinions on the way Christians should approach the arts, but I think it’s a very subjective idea, so I don’t intend to criticize.

My favorite music, literature, films, and paintings are usually not Christian. And the Christian artists who I find to be brilliant aren’t usually embraced as Christian writers or filmmakers by other Christians—Flannery O’Connor, for example, or Carlos Theodore Dreyer.

If my faith is integral to me, I believe it will show up in my work, but I’m very partial about what a work of art should be. I don’t get anything out of films or music with a hidden agenda; audiences are smarter than that. Nor do I enjoy art that is intended for Christians alone.

Overstreet:

Is there anything about your own experience, growing up in on a farm in Arkansas with parents from Korea, that might incline you to approach a story like Munyurangabo differently than other American filmmakers? Or perhaps, to be interested in a different story?

Chung:

I’m not sure other American filmmakers would have enjoyed filming the farming scene in Munyurangabo 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. Perhaps that scene is autobiographical in a way. To be honest, I only just came up with this connection now.

I don’t know how the Korean aspect plays into it at all, and I don’t want to psychologize too much.

I have felt like a foreigner in many places. For instance, when I first got to Yale and was surrounded by one of the wealthiest and intellectual student bodies in the US. I don’t know how any of this links together, but I also felt very foreign in Arkansas because we were the only minority family in my town for the longest time. When I’ve traveled in developing world countries in Asia, I’ve enjoyed the act of trying to be at home, as I have in Arkansas or at Yale. In Rwanda too, where I felt very much at home by the end of my stay.

I also like traveling in places where farming is still a large part of the lifestyle even though I wanted to move far away from the farm when I was young. For a while, I thought this meant I would become a missionary doctor in a developing world clinic, but I turned to filmmaking instead, mostly because I don’t like science. I still feel the need to escape to non-modern places or nature here and there.

Anyhow, I think all of this helped me to know that farming and simple daily moments—breakfast, fetching water, telling stories—are worth filming, and not the bloodshed and violence that we assume makes Africa interesting.

Overstreet:

Is there anything in particular you’d like to see happen as Munyurangabo reaches more people?

Chung:

Going through this entire process has let me see that cinema from Africa is always going through this threat of almost disappearing. There have been a lot of films from Hollywood that are made in Africa, but that’s no true replacement. There is a lot of great cinema coming out of Africa. And it would be great if those films were given much more attention than they are now. If Munyurangabo can point people towards cinema in Africa, I’d be very happy.

I know people mention [African filmmaker] Ousmane Sembene often when they talk about Munyurangabo. To be honest I only discovered Sembene a few months after we got back from Rwanda. I felt as though I saw in his films the types of works that I wished my students in Rwanda could make someday.

Overstreet:

Where should I start in watching Sembene’s work?

Chung:

One of his later films is quite good. Moolaadé.

Overstreet:

I’m thrilled that Film Movement has made the film available to a wider audience. I’ve been very impressed with their collection and vision. What has it been like working with them?

Chung:

I have become a great fan of Film Movement, which is easy to say because they decided to distribute the film. But their love of cinema and desire to bring overlooked films to a greater audience is very courageous.

We were told a few times by other major distributors that Munyurangabo could not be sold in the US because it has three difficult aspects: subtitles, non-famous Africans, and “arthouse” storytelling. The independent film world can be progressive in raw content, but not so much in what is sold. Many distributors confuse “controversy” with “progress,” so charting new territory is often a matter of innovative sex and violence. The market itself tends not to be very progressive. There are many films such as Ballast or Treeless Mountain that deserve a wider audience.

Anyhow, this is supposed to be about Film Movement. Part of my contract with them is that I have to say they are 100% perfect and the best distribution company in the world. I’m just kidding of course. But I have been very happy with them.

Munyurangabo is a hard sell—I can tell that they are running with the film the way I have, as a labor of love, and I would like to think that all cinema could be approached in the same way.


For more on Munyuragabo, and the experience of Lee Isaac Chung, read Darren Hughes’ excellent essay and interview “The Storm of Progress,” originally published in Sojourners Magazine, June 2008 (Vol. 37, No. 5, pp. ).

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