Director: Lee Isaac Chung, 2007.
Munyurangabo is a tough title. What is it? What does it mean? How do you pronounce it? It's a hard sell for an American audience wanting a catchy title and a fast-moving story.
Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) is one of the two main characters. He and his friend Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) take a long, slow walk across Rwanda with mixed motives after stealing a machete from a town marketplace.
This is the first film by Korean American Chung, and it is the first film in the Kinyarwanda language. Chung, a Christian, went to Rwanda to teach Rwandans to make film, and he chose to do so by taking about 15 students and having them make this film with him. Using people with no acting experience as cast and crew, he let them become part of the whole process and shot the film in 11 days. Much of the dialog and details were shaped by these locals as the scenes were shot. This is an organic and unpretentious film. A risky movie, it is minimal and understated. It is a film for Rwanda by Rwandans. Slow but intimate, it shows their daily struggles. With little musical score, it leaves interpretation of the lean and anecdotal narrative to the viewer.
Chung opens the film with a quote from Isa. 51:19-20:
19 These double calamities have come upon you—This sets the scene for the film -- the ravages, by famine and sword, of the land and people of Rwanda by the 1994 genocide between the Hutus and Tutsis.
who can comfort you?—
ruin and destruction, famine and sword—
who can console you?
20 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.
The two teens on this journey set out for a common cause but end up divided by racial intolerance and hatred. 'Ngabo, a Tutsi, is on a mission of revenge, looking to kill the man who murdered his father. Sangwa, on the other hand, has his mission changed when he reunites with his family.
Stopping at his home village after 3 years away, Sangwa is like the prodigal son come home. Getting back into his family environment reminds him of all he left behind.
The middle section of the film focuses on this village life and there are some beautiful scenes of labor in the fields. My favorite scene shows Sangwa (and 'Ngabo) working to rebuild the wall of the family home with freshly made mud. He is doing this to gain his father's approval.
How true that we seek approval from our earthly fathers. When it is absent we feel an emptiness, a void. Lack of parental approval can be debilitating in many cases. As fathers, it is our responsibilty to pour out love and acceptance on our children, especially our sons. Disapproval can tear down a teen's fledgling self-esteem and leave him adrift in a sea of cultural and peer negativity. Yet, as Christians we need to look beyond our flawed earthly fathers to our perfect heavenly Father for approval. He is ultimately the one we should be striving to please. His is the "Well done!" (Matt. 25:21) we need to hear.
It is at Sangwa's home village that the tensions of racial division surface. Sangwa and his family are Hutus. Even after a decade the memories of the genocidal violence remain fresh, and the feelings of Sangwa's family, especially his father, fester like a weeping sore. This poison of racial intolerance not only impacts the hospitality received by 'Ngabo but damages the friendship between him and Sangwa.
Intolerance in any shape is sinful and evil. God has made humans in his image (Gen. 1:26). Whether male or female, black or white, African or Korean, Hutu or Tutsi, we are all the same in essence and have an innate worth and dignity due to the imago dei present yet distorted (Gal. 3:28). To do violence against or ill-treat anyone based on race, sex, color or religion is to harm a person that God loves as much as he loves you. Intolerance was at the heart of the Rwandan genocide and continues to be the root cause of many oppressions globally. Only with love and sacrifice can we rise above this.
As 'Ngabo goes on with his journey he is more rooted in his hatred of Hutus and out for justice. Then he meets a poet who has written a beautiful and moving memorial to the genocide and its after-effects. As the poet speaks directly into the camera in a lilting voice with rhythmic musicality, he focuses on more than the war. True justice includes things like poverty and disease and hardship. He asks the question, how can liberation come while we are still struggling with these. What a question!
Justice includes social justice. Followers of Christ look to bring hope in Christ as well as help in Christ. Chung himself went to Rwanda with YWAM (Youth With a Mission), but since Rwanda is 80% Christian, their need was not for evangelism but for aid.
Weaved throughout the film is the concept of memorials and memories. The poem that is so affective is remembering the war but not dwelling on it. The scenes of family life with Sangwa highlight the art of oral storytelling, which relies on memories. Memory is crucial in Rwandan life. Yet, memory is also what continues to create tension and trouble. As 'Ngabo moves forward with his mission he is motivated by his constant reflection on the memory of evil.
Paul addresses this in Philippians 4:8 -- "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." Where we set our mind often defines how we use our body -- for good or evil. In 'Ngabo's case, he dwelled on hatred and became hateful. Only love can penetrate the hardness of heart that results. And love can beget love. Reconciliation starts with one heart that is changed.
As Munyurangabo ends, Chung leaves us with an image that depicts the desire for reconciliation, not necessarily giving us the answer for how to effect that reconciliation. Life is like that. We must desire something before we can attain it. Reconciliation requires hard work, but it is worth it. The alternative is too costly to consider.
Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs