Munyurangabo (Day 20)


MY OPINION: 8.0 || Beautiful movie. Filmed without affectation, using hand-held cameras, natural scenery, and amateur (or amateur-seeming) actors to tell a delicate story about family, loyalty, and ethnic conflict. An impressively natural, realistic, and emotionally mature film.

TITLE: Munyurangabo
DIRECTOR:  Lee Isaac Chung
LANGUAGE: Kinyarwanda | COUNTRY: Rwanda
PROFILE: Drama | 97 minutes | IMDb (7.1)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of Netflix): Orphaned by Rwanda’s genocide, young Ngabo (Jeff Rutagengwa), a Tutsi, sets off to mete out rough justice with his Hutu friend Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) in this earnest drama, which netted director Lee Isaac Chung an Independent Spirit Awards nod. Packing a stolen machete, the boys leave the city of Kigali and head to Ngabo’s rural village. Along the way, they stop at Sangwa’s parents’ home — where their tribal differences soon come to a head.

Strengths: The story feels more witnessed that told. It seems simple, but very few films ever achieve such a sense of authentic realism. With only one exception, no scene in the movie comes off as written or staged; we feel that we’re watching moments and conflicts as they naturally unfold, rather than elements that have been engineered for dramatic purpose. Which makes the conflicts and dilemmas all the more powerful — we identify with all the perspectives, even the ugly ones.

This is subject matter that’s fertile ground for preachiness and emotional pummeling. The director, Lee Isaac Chung, deserves great credit for exercising powerful restraint. Time and again, he chooses understatement and suggestiveness — little gestures instead of broad motions. His ability to navigate this terrain without slipping into intrusive moralizing or tear mongering is an impressive achievement, both aesthetically and ethically.

Weaknesses: In one of the later scenes, the filmmakers present a new character (played by Eduard B. Way) who recites a long poem about Rwanda’s struggles. It’s an earnest, heartfelt poem, delivered in a natural style that’s consistent with the film’s aesthetic. But it also feels a little shoehorned in and is the only time when we’re conscious of watching something that’s been written (as opposed to looking in on a real-life moment). It’s also the only moment when the filmmakers are telling us what to think and feel, rather than letting the moments speak for themselves. It’s delivered with enough integrity that I don’t consider it a major fault, but it’s the film’s only flawed piece.

Characters/Performances: Wonderful performances across the board — a case study in unaffected acting that Chung assists with consistently unfussy camerawork. Every character (with the slight exception above) feels like a real person caught on film. The relationship between the boys, Sangwa and Munyurangabo, is presented with great delicacy, and the tension that rises between them is one of the most painful depictions you’ll ever see of a fractured friendship.

Best Moment: I normally can isolate one two particularly successful moments, but here I’d rather not.

File Under: war, reconciliation, friendship, family, road trip, forgiveness, hand-held camera