September 24, 2009 -- The leisurely pace of this film and its low-key performances belie the emotional power that develops in this fictional story about the aftermath of the hellish 1994 civil war and genocide in Rwanda. Two young men hide the deep scars of that conflict, but the scars become more clear as the movie rolls on. We see the first evidence of it as one of the young men, Munyurangabo (Ngabo for short) steals a machete from a city street vendor. Blood appears, then vanishes, on the machete in a foreshadowing of things to come. This 2007 independent film is being released to the public on DVD on October 6, 2009 as part of the film movement collection (http://www.filmmovement.com/. More about that below.
Ngabo (played by Jeff Rutagengwa) and his best friend, Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) work in an open air market in Kigali, Rwanda's capital city (the actors who play these characters are both victims of the civil war and both work in the same Kigali marketplace). They undertake a journey to visit Sangwa's family. Ngabo brings his machete, he has darker business planned. They are an unlikely pair, Ngabo is a Tutsi and Sangwa is a Hutu, groups (not true tribes) that were on opposite sides of the conflict. They seem quite fond of one another, so fond that one might suspect they are a gay couple, but if they are, this is not the subject of the film. They argue over the fact that Sangwa has spent the bus fare on a new shirt, so they have to hitchhike. Sangwa wants to make a good impression on his parents. He hasn't seen them in three years.
Sangwa's mother (Narcicia Nyirabucyeye) makes a big fuss over him and spoon-feeds him as you would a small child. His father (Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyinka), however, withdraws in quiet dignity and when his son comes to him, he solemnly chastises his son for abandoning his family and making life harder for all of them. Sangwa's family is barely getting by on subsistence farming. Sangwa's mother announces, “there is no food today.” Everyone is tall, thin and angular with long limbs, not a fat person in sight. Water has to be hauled some distance. A drought has the land in its grip.
Sangwa's mother questions her son about his true motives for the trip and about his strange relationship with Ngabo. Her probing questions are exactly the sort of thing a mother might ask her son in this situation. Though the culture is quite different than it is in some parts of the world, the relationships within this family should be familiar to anyone. Sangwa settles in to home life, working hard and trying to impress his father, which he does. He seems ready to move back in with his parents and stay there. Ngabo has other plans and wants to press on. He tells Sangwa in an emotional scene that Sangwa cannot comprehend his feelings since Ngabo's parents were killed in the genocide and Sangwa's parents are still alive.
Eventually, the conflict between Ngabo and Sangwa comes to a head and the journey of both young men is altered by a storm of emotions. As Ngabo forges on alone, he happens upon a poet (Edouard B. Uwayo, who is, in fact, one of the leading poets of Rwanda). Noticing Ngabo's machete and guessing his purpose, Uwayo unleashes a magnificent, lyrical poem about the conflict in Rwanda and its aftermath. Almost a song, the poem explores the cycle of revenge and hatred that has gripped Rwanda. His poem indicates that the drought that has gripped the country is related to this cycle of violence. He sings that Rwanda was a land of beauty and plenty before the conflict began. He sings that only peace and reconciliation can heal this torn land.
This quiet, slow-moving film carries under its surface a deep emotional power and powerful ideas about hatred, revenge and reconciliation. Uwayo's wondrous poem is a thing of beauty and power. Ngabo's confrontation with his nemesis is memorable. Despite the film's leisurely pace, the turn of emotions seems abrupt at times. Ngabo and Sangwa are friends, then they aren't then they are, then they are not once again. The relationship between Sangwa and his father is similarly mercurial, running from deep affection in one scene to anger and violence the next. If you can get past this, and the slow pace, you'll find a film that has a lot to say about war and peace, hatred and love, revenge and reconciliation. This film rates a B.
This film is part of the film-of-the-month collection of award-winning DVDs from Film Movement. The spoken language is a Rwandan dialect, but the DVD has subtitles. Also on this same Film Movement DVD is a short film about a soccer fan in a remote place that isn't so remote after all, “Alptraum.” Also included is a clever, award-winning commercial for Stella Artois Beer (a sponsor of the Film Movement series) called “The Race.” The DVD also has some short biographies of the director and some of the actors in “Munyurangabo.” For more on the Film Movement series, check out the official Film Movement website.
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