A kind of male myth has infiltrated mainstream cinema with depictions of dude-on-dude friendships — excuse me, “bromances” — in films like I Love You Man, Superbad, and Pineapple Express. These movies are similar to the chick flicks us women have had to endure for decades, but with more boobs and pizza. On-screen male relationships in such mainstream fare are rooted in frat boy camaraderie, homophobia, and beer. Leave it to projects on the fringe to clean up after Hollywood’s waste.
Judd Apatow doesn't really deserve to have his name mentioned in the same paragraph as first-time director Lee Isaac Chung (one is a salesman, the other is an artist), but his lamentable existence provides a context for how desperately we need a film like Munyurangabo. Lee Isaac Chung's feature directorial debut trembles with pain, but in a quiet, unassuming way. Rather than succumb to the clichéd, presumptuous depiction of Africa as a violent but “exotic” third world, Chung takes us to rural Rwanda in this coming-of-age story. There is little violence and no western imperialist agenda. Instead, Munyurangabo is the tale of an incredibly resilient friendship between two young men a country that has survived genocide.
The film opens with a somber Ngabo (played with grace and gravity by Jeff Rutagengwa) watching two men fight in a street market. He sees a machete lying on the ground, picks it up, and walks away. In the next shot, the machete is covered with blood. The camera cuts to Ngabo's face, silent and observing, and then back to the machete, which is clean again. It's a brilliant moment, encapsulating Chung's "show, don't tell" technique. This approach lends a dreamy quality to Munyurangabo, a film that blends the national memory of a bleeding Rwanda with the present-day state, its landscape a giant bruise changing colors from deep purple to a healing yellow. Ghosts sleep in the hills while vengeance brews behind doors. The machete's purpose is clear, yet Ngabo’s is yet to be revealed. He is on a journey with his best friend, Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye), who hasn't seen his family in three years. When they arrive at Sangwa's childhood home, Sangwa is welcomed with open arms while Ngabo is regarded with suspicion and disgust. Sangwa's family is Hutu and Ngabo is a Tutsi. We find out the boys are on a mission to avenge Ngabo's father, who was murdered in the genocide. When Sangwa asks Ngabo if they can stay one more night, Ngabo faces the camera and asks, "Did you forget we're on our way to kill a man?" He says it with purpose and resolution, his eyes heavy with solemnity. It implicates the viewer for the first time in a film that’s decidedly un-self-aware. But it’s not an isolating moment; rather, it is tender exchange between two friends who’ve made a life-changing commitment to one another.
Sangwa has reservations about killing a man — as does Ngabo — but not keeping his promise proves to be the more troubling scenario. Chung eschews moralizing about the boys’ plot to kill a man and instead focuses on friendship. At one point, Chung directs the boys walking down the street, laughing and embracing. Like the desert’s birdsong and the tribal dancing that occasionally interrupts the action, there is so much joy in their relationship to each other. There is resilience, too, in the way Sangwa begs Ngabo for forgiveness after choosing his family over vengeance. But this friendship is heavy with violence, a savage memory still tearing into Ngabo’s gut as he listens to Sangwa’s father in the dead of night whisper propaganda to his son. It reinforces his murderous intent and precipitates Sangwa and Ngabo’s falling out.
Towards the end of the film, Ngabo and the ghost of his father sit with their backs to the camera, watching the sunset. Chung often films the actors from behind, allowing their bodies to move in a way that betrays emotion. Close-ups, used sparingly, are taut with drama. In the film’s most intense and moving scene, real-life Rwandan poet laureate Edouard Bamporiki delivers a poem in a single long take, his face filling the screen and the camera moving with him as he begs Rwanda for reconciliation. "Where is the justice?" he asks, comparing his country to a cemetery. Ngabo’s father asks a similar question: "What is your battle?"
Art can be a transformative medium for memory, and it transforms Ngabo’s memory when he — spoiler alert! — finds the man he is supposed to kill dying of AIDS on the floor of an empty hut. The man begs for a drink and Ngabo’s machete is replaced with a water canister. It’s a simple prop that personifies Ngabo’s “battle” for reconciliation and the resurrection of Rwanda, just as Bamporiki demands. In the final scene, Sangwa is with Ngabo at the water pump, but neither boy seems to recognize the other’s presence. Still, although they are on different paths, the boys’ friendship remains a permanent bond: They are tied only to each other, not to the past. And perhaps this is the image of a new Rwanda, a prescient relationship that forgives and is healed by dreams. It requires no words, only birdsong and the sound of water filling an empty canister.