Lee Isaac Chung, Munyurangabo, 2007, still from a color film in 16 mm, 97 minutes. Muyurangabo and Sangwa (Jeff Rutagengwa and Eric Ndorunkundiye).


THE MOST ARRESTING ASPECT of Lee Isaac Chung’s Munyurangabo (2007) is the uneasy silence that permeates its Rwandan vistas. Traversing the countryside, young Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) and Ngabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) hitchhike their way from Kigali, the nation’s capital, to the rural village that Sangwa abandoned three years earlier. For both men, it’s an emotional journey back to the once-bloodied countryside that still haunts them. But not until Sangwa’s stern father—a Hutu—asks his son why he is traveling with a Tutsi does the movie begin to delve into the complex tribal dynamics that still define everyday life for those living in the nation.

The Rwandan genocide ended fifteen years ago with the killing of between five hundred thousand and one million Tutsis, and the silent strain between Sangwa and Ngabo and between Sangwa and his father (played by a solemn Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyink) reflects a nation still struggling to cope with this horror. Pausing on the side of the road before they reach Sangwa’s home, the two travelers get their stories straight: They will only stay with Sangwa’s family for a few days before moving on to complete their mission. But as Sangwa embraces his mother and father, works the family’s farmland, makes daily trips to the watering hole, and takes charge of repairing a crumbling wall on the house, he starts to again appreciate the familiar rhythms of family life. His contentedness only frustrates Ngabo, whose own father was one of those slaughtered during the genocide. His safety net has been torn to shreds, and the film slowly reveals that the larger purpose behind this cross-country trek is the assassination of the Hutu man who murdered Ngabo’s family.

Dialogue is sparse in Munyurangabo, a silence surely linked to Chung’s disconnection from the Rwandan language, landscape, and cast (all nonprofessional actors, working from an improvised script). An American director of Korean ancestry, Chung is focused here not solely on the story of a single Rwandan family but also on how this one instance of familial tension is representative of larger issues. Slowly widening his focus, Chung examines the ways in which the genocide and an ongoing drought have obliterated the nation’s foundations.

With crops, water, sons, and fathers in short supply, it is suspicion, selfishness, and violence that have filled the void. In a place where families depend on one another for labor and sustenance, one lost generation of Tutsis has left another fumbling to find its footing. Yet of all the things falling apart in Munyurangabo—the house, the family, the soil—it is the decline of Sangwa and Ngabo’s friendship that is most immediately salient. Loyal friends in the city, they are overcome by the bitter divisions that abide in the rural municipalities, and it is only at the end of their journey that a stranger along the road finally speaks up, calling their silent and poisonous enmity into question.

Munyurangabo screens May 29 through June 4 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Director Lee Isaac Chung and writer/coproducer Samuel Anderson will be in attendance on Friday, May 29, and Saturday, May 30. For more details, click here.

S. James Snyder