The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Loren Cass


Chris Fuller’s Gummo-inspired Loren Cass, is easily the most controversial indie film of the past year – a film so dark that it somehow makes even Antichrist seem upbeat by comparison. Originally completed in 2007, the film finally had a limited theatrical release this past summer and recently became available on DVD from Kino International. Loren Cass received a number of favorable reviews in the press, most notably a very glowing one from Nathan Lee in the New York Times. Like Korine’s film, however, the targeted audience for Loren Cass is certainly not mainstream viewers, who will no doubt find its subject matter far too disturbing and depressing.

The connection to Harmony Korine is appropriate for a number of reasons. Fuller cast Jacob Reynolds, who played Solomon in Gummo, for a cameo appearance as the Suicide Kid. But beyond that, Fuller has created a truly provocative film that attempts to push beyond Korine’s fictional saga by presenting an uncompromising view of youthful anomie and skinhead culture. Like Gummo, Fuller employs an associational structure to weave together an evocative mood-piece that captures the angst and despair among the alienated young people of St. Petersburg, Florida. He depicts his home town as a vision of hell.

Lile Korine, Fuller often disguises his sources and appears to be more interested in individual scenes than in the larger narrative. Indeed he uses a romantic plotline as something of a smokescreen in order to disguise to his real intentions. It’s not, as some folks on the Internet suggest, that Fuller doesn’t know or understand how to make a narrative. A film has to be judged by the criteria it establishes. For someone to evaluate Loren Cass on strictly narrative terms or on the basis of classical narration is like criticizing a poem for not having a plot.

Loren Cass begins with music over black leader, followed by a shot of a road with buildings in the background. A raspy voiceover, reminiscent of Solomon’s opening monologue about the tornado in Gummo, says, “Back in 1997 . . . ” Subsequent sequences, involving virtually no dialogue, introduce us to the film’s three main characters: a garage mechanic named Cale (Fuller himself under a pseudonym), his heavily-tattooed punk friend, Jason (Travis Maynard), who proceeds to lie boldly in the middle of the street as if begging to be run over, and a promiscuous blond-haired waitress, Nicole (Kayla Tabish).

In a sun-drenched wide shot, Nicole slips out of bed and gets dressed. The covers slowly start to move, and a black man becomes visible. She mumbles something to him, passes her parents without speaking, and then gets into a red convertible. Cale’s car stops in front of the still-prone Jason. As they drive away, Nicole’s car follows them down the street. The two vehicles pull side-by-side at a stoplight and when the light changes, they disappear from the frame, only to reappear in the parking lot of a school.

After a montage of street signs and empty corridors, lockers, a stairwell, and finally a men’s bathroom, feet can be seen underneath the front toilet stall. Fuller cuts to a closeup of male hands loading five bullets into the cylinder of a revolver. As Cale and Jason later leave the nearly empty parking lot, they hurl an empty beer bottle at the remaining vehicle and we hear the sound of shattered glass. A guy races out of the building, gets in the van, and gives chase. At a stop sign, a black man jumps out and begins to pummel Jason through the open car window, but Cale stomps the guy with his foot as the screen cuts to black.

The film’s opening takes nearly ten-and-a-half minutes. Other than sounds of a trumpet and Nicole’s mumbled line of dialogue, Fuller relies entirely on visual storytelling. Yet Loren Cass has already managed to evoke an ominous mood and create expectations that something really terrible is going to happen, as evidenced by the loading of the gun, the broken glass, and the stomping of a black man. As Jason walks toward us at night, we hear voiceover narration: “St. Petersburg – a dirty, dirty town, by a dirty, dirty sea because the soul of the railroad is the chain gang . . . ”

Fuller, who began Loren Cass as a teenager and completed it when he was twenty-one – indie films usually rely on these kinds of back stories – teases the viewer with bits of an elliptical narrative. But mostly he relies on the technique of collage. Fuller uses passages of black leader and assorted verbal passages – rants with four-letter words and drunken songs by gutter punks, fiery revolutionary rhetoric by Omali Yeshitela, readings by poet Charles Bukowski, and allusions to Nelson Algren, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and the beat writer Jack Kerouac, who lived there. He also includes documentary television footage of the 1996 race riots in St. Petersburg.

In addition, there are more racially motivated fist fights, sequences of gutter punks combing through the trash and creating a makeshift shelter out of wooden skids, or pulling shopping cars with pickup trucks, or guzzling bottles of beer in the back of them until they get busted by the “pigs.” They throw insane tantrums at invisible adversaries and beer bottles at passing cars, or they attack trash cans with their bare fists (which references the infamous wrestling match with the chair in Gummo). Fuller shows footage of a hardcore concert, in which a shot of the jumping boots of punks intercuts with footage of the race riot on TV and words of Yeshitela talking about armed resistance.

It takes a full twenty minutes before the two friends, Cale and Jason, ever speak a word to each other. At the heart of Loren Cass, however, is a romantic plotline involving Cale and Nicole At fifteen minutes, Nicole drives into the gas station with radiator problems. She later returns for her car, and, on the way out, asks Cale if he wants to get some dinner at the restaurant where she waits tables. The scene of them at the restaurant is notable for the fact that Fuller begins the scene by focusing on their legs and feet as they sit in a booth. Nicole eats, but Cale doesn’t touch his cheeseburger. Instead they just sit there in awkward silence for nearly two-and-a half minutes, before she scribbles a note on a piece of paper and and passes it to him.

The above scene is mostly handled through body gestures and reaction shots, but the ensuing dialogue, which occurs over the next minute, is cryptic beyond belief, especially because four of the six lines turn out to be questions.

CALE: I’m hanging in there. You?
NICOLE: I’ve seen better days.
CALE: Like?
NICOLE: Did you have a rough night?
He just shakes his head.
NICOLE (Cont.): So, you’re going to eat?
He makes a sound.
NICOLE: Let’s get out of here.

At her car, Nicole writes her phone number on Cale’s hand and splits.

Cale later calls Nicole and makes a date for the following night. In between, however, she gets picked up by a young customer (actually he’s not much of a customer – he only orders water) and has sex in the back seat of her car, which is conveyed behind the open car door by means of a jump cut. This is a film where shots of a pickup truck being towed – and the objects shuffling around in the back of it – are given equal weight to a scene that involves sex, which is part of the film’s extreme formal rigor.

We get more shots of feet when the two share the same restaurant booth on their date. Like Korine’s dialogue in Gummo, the exchange between Nicole and Cale is full of non-sequiturs, and once again involves more questions than coherent statements. Fuller actually uses their fractured dialogue as a means to depict his characters’ inability to communicate what’s going on inside them:

NICOLE: A few years ago my parents took me on this road trip. We went up the coast and rented a van. I hated it. We went by a “South of the Border.” You know that place?
CALE: Yeah, Carolina?
NICOLE: Yeah. I’m leaving soon. Not here, but more back home.
The two stare at each other.
CALE: That all you remember?
NICOLE: Motel . . .  headlights. You?
CALE: I went to Brooklyn once. (Pause).
He hands her a cassette tape.
CALE (Cont.): Listen to this when you can. (Pause) What’s your name?
NICOLE: Nicole.
CALE: You’re gonna go for a ride?

The film cuts to them sitting in the back of an empty bus. During the ride, which lasts over a minute-and-a-half, Nicole leans her head on his neck.

After a punk concert, Cale runs full-speed from his room through the streets. Nicole drives her car and inserts the cassette tape into the deck before she crashes into him. He flies up onto the hood of her car and gets thrown back into the street. Nicole gets out of her car and the film jumpcuts to them kissing in the headlights, and then silhouetted against the car. In the film’s most remarkable scene, Jason, while riding the bus at night, envisions himself sitting in an armchair. He suddenly bursts into flames, leaving him burnt to a crisp. In the same dream sequence, he imagines the aftermath of his death – a shot in the cemetery as someone jumps on his grave. As Jason walks home, he gets the shit beaten out of him, and is left a bloody mess. Once home, he dyes his sideburns with his blood.

At the three-quarter mark, Bukowski reads his poem, “The Last Days of the Suicide Kid” on the soundtrack and there’s a shot of the Suicide Kid (Reynolds), smoking a cigarette and then slugging from a bottle at a party. Cale and Nicole also show up and make love in the bedroom. After Jason leaves the party and goes to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, where all the punks hang out, the Suicide Kid heads to the same place. As he drives there, we hear snippets of Budd Dwyer on the radio. When the Suicide Kid gets there, the horizontal stripes on his red shirt are filmed against the diagonal lines of the bridge. There’s a cut to a TV screen. Fuller shows the notorious television footage of Budd Dwyer (the Pennsylvania public official convicted of corruption in 1987), putting a gun to his mouth and then pulling the trigger during a press conference.

The horrific footage of Dwyer committing suicide serves as a visual shock, which was set up earlier by the use of synecdoche, namely the loading of the gun in the bathroom stall. The visceral impact of splicing the Dwyer footage into the film as a surrogate for the Suicide Kid’s death serves as the film’s most controversial aspect. It makes perfect sense given the fact that the entire film can seen as a suicide note, but at the same time you can argue that the “reality” of it somehow gets reduced to a chilling metaphor. Shortly after this, Jason will tattoo the enigmatic words “Loren Cass” on his arm, adding to the film’s opacity, before he overdoses on pills, and a voiceover negates everything that has gone before.

Loren Cass succeeds largely through its cinematic aspects – meticulous compositions (William Garcia’s superb cinematography), languid pacing, the densely-layered soundtrack by Gary Boggess, and inspired music, including Propagandhi’s “Letter of Resignation,” which plays over the final credits. For all the film’s unbridled nihilism and cultural disgust, Chris Fuller’s Loren Cass is actually an intensely heartfelt labor of love.

Posted 25 January, 2010

Harmony and Me

It’s sometimes hard to understand why some mediocre films get all the buzz, and some great ones don’t. For the life of me, I can’t explain why Bob Byington’s Harmony and Me (2009) received its theatrical run at the Museum of Modern Art rather than a commercial theater, and to my knowledge, still hasn’t as yet found a distributor. Yeah, life ain’t fair – of course, I know that. Yet if I were to pick one indie film of the past year that I would jump at the chance to see over and over again, it would be Harmony and Me, a film in which every single scene manages to work, while being woven into an intricate medley of idiosyncratic humor. And I say this as someone who generally shuns comedies for the simple reason that most of them aren’t very funny.

Variety, in a favorable review, called it “a mumblecore film without the mumble.” That sounds a bit like calling something a chocolate bar without chocolate or a milk shake without milk, so I’m not exactly sure what it means. In any case, like the Variety reviewer, other people might also assume this film to be another example of mumblecore. After all, Harmony and Me features Justin Rice, the talented front man of the Brooklyn band Bishop Allen, who was the lead actor in Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, (and who, like Benjamin Button, seems to grow younger and younger with each passing year). The film is also set in Austin, Texas, edited by Frank Ross, and is even about relationships involving twentysomethings.

Byington, however, has tried to distance himself from mumblecore. When asked how he felt about the association, Byington told Karina Longworth in New York Magazine, “I like the humor in Broadcast News more than, say . . . I don’t know how to say more without seeming like I’m being dismissive of other movies. I’m very interested in watching how some of the mumblecore directors continue. I certainly don’t consider myself one of them. I understand the connection, but the movie and I are interested in other things.” In other words, Byington is politely suggesting that his real interests lie in comedy.

What distinguishes Harmony and Me is Byington’s absolute command of comic timing, which I suspect is also the result of careful scripting. One of my favorite scenes in Mutual Appreciation is the one where a drunken Alan (played by Rice) stumbles into party and the three women in wigs convince him to dress in drag. Rice’s comic timing stands out in that particular scene, but then again he’s playing a rock-musician character who at least bears some resemblance to himself. Yet I didn’t find this quality at all evident in Jonathan Blitstein’s Let Them Chirp Awhile, in which Rice was cast as a Woody Allen wannabe.

After seeing Harmony and Me, I’m convinced that Byington deserves much of the credit for Rice’s outstanding performance here, in which his deadpan delivery and reactions are totally spot on. He’s not playing himself, but a hapless loser with a broken heart, who can’t seem to get past it. As Byington puts it in the same interview, “In Harmony, it’s like Justin’s walking around with a broken record, asking people to listen to it. ‘Please listen to my broken record.’ Our worst nightmare is having to listen to our friends tell us about their stupid breakup. There is a way to make that situation funny.”

Harmony and Me begins with a voiceover quote from the lyrics of a Madonna song. Harmony says, “Something in your eyes is making such a fool of me.” It takes all of eight shots to move from the romantic bliss of Harmony and his girlfriend Jessica (Kristen Tucker, the film’s producer) to Harmony lying on a couch. We assume he’s in a therapy session. Harmony says, “I can’t seem to . . . I walk around with this idea that I want and can’t be happy without some version of, I don’t know, possessing her? Of having her love me in a way she’s not even wired for, not even set up to do.”

As the camera holds on Harmony muttering to himself, a voice asks, “Can I help you?” Byington cuts to a wide shot and the back of a proprietor and what appears to be an empty furniture store. The film cuts to black. Justin sits talking on a cell phone to one of Jessica’s friends, who claims that Jessica describes him as a loser. The revelation is painful. We learn in the next scene – once again involving a cell phone conversation with the same person – that Jessica had already started grieving over the loss while still in the relationship, which has given her a big head start over poor Harmony.

As a form of therapy, Harmony begins taking piano lessons. In voiceover, he suggests, “Lately, the way I shake people’s hands feels spasmodic . . . like I have a hand buzzer. I can’t find any rhythm.” What follows is a series of episodic skits. We see him at work, with his mother (Margie Beegle) and his impish younger brother, Wes (Bishop Allen bassist, Keith Poulson). Brad (Don Herminghaus), his boss at the tech company where he works, has only a day to live and his mother turns out to have lung cancer, but Harmony is too fixated on his own broken heart for these things to register.

Harmony’s tries to get sympathy from his family, but his mother suggests that next time he should “find one that can move her arms and legs,” and Wes can only muster snide remarks. After a family tennis match, Harmony concludes, “I’m pretty sure I grew up with limited access to mental health. My older brother, who was supposed to be a mentor in lieu of our deceased father was deficient. Suffice it to say that he didn’t pick up the slack.” His older brother Jim (Bob Byington) is the type who insists that Harmony remove his shoes before entering his house. He’s about to get married, and, at least according to Harmony, has just bought the wrong-colored tan suit.

Harmony’s friends are no more sympathetic or understanding than his family. Carlos (Kevin Corrigan) calls Jessica “dull” and won’t admit she’s pretty. Another, Prince Valiant (Nick Holden), puts his arm around Harmony and suggests that his uptight response is homophobic. Harmony insists that it’s a personal-space issue, while his friend claims it’s cultural. To be more cruel, the friend rates Jessica only an 8 on a 10-scale. Still another one, Mean Man Mike (filmmaker Alex Karpovsky) who’s unhappily married to a woman named Milius (Baseera Khan), takes Harmony to a Chinese acupuncturist. After the friend uses a “stagnant pond” metaphor to describe his problem, Harmony explains to the acupuncturist, “She broke my heart, but she’s still at it. She hasn’t finished the job. She’s breaking my heart.” He continues, “My heart is a snack. She’s like a bear with a fish in its paw.”

Brad seems to recuperate miraculously. He ridicules the heart-shaped locket containing Jessica’s picture that Harmony wears around his neck, and also suggest to a female employee that he’s only interested in underage women. When Harmony tells Mean Man Mike that his boss implied that his chain and locket  made him look gay, the friend concurs that you only see such jewelry on either black people or gay people. When Harmony runs into Jessica on an elevator, she comments on the fact that his shirt and sweater and shoes match, and then laughs and remarks, “It’s cute.” Harmony demands his sweatshirt back, while she reminds him he still has her yoga mat. He also runs into a neighbor, Natasha (Allison Latta), who’s obsessed with her boobs and seems to have a crush on him.

Music becomes a means for Harmony to work out his emotional turmoil and also communicate with his friends, including Mean Man Mike and Carlos. The piano teacher (Jerm Pollet) claims, “No one wins in love.” He realizes his wife is no longer interested in him, but a lawyer who happens to make a lot more money. To him, it’s not personal, but attributable to a change in taste – like preferring crème brûlée to crab cakes.

One of the funniest and most uplifting scenes occurs at Jim’s wedding, where Harmony is brought up by the band to sing, while the Wedding Singer (Austin musician Bob Schneider) checks out the bride, who’s six-months pregnant, and Wes munches on cake. Harmony wanders down to where the Wedding Singer is practicing a song on the piano and gets tutored in how to play it. This is intercut with the Wedding Singer who leads the bride onto the dance floor and sings an exuberant rendition of “Changing Your Mind” to her on bended knee, with his head pressed against her extended belly. Embarrassed, she looks over, and the ensuing camera movement over to Jim and family at the table is as hilarious as you might expect.

As the movie progresses, Jessica takes up with the boss’s son Matt (Pat Healy), whom Harmony regards as “pretty clearly an imbecile.” Harmony goes bowling on his birthday with Matt and Brad, which ends disastrously. Harmony attends Brad’s funeral, where he delivers a eulogy that gets him fired, and has an affair with Natasha that turns out badly, and references There’s Something About Mary (a film I could never watch twice). After she complains that the sex was bad while standing on the balcony in her undies, Harmony responds from the parking lot, “Are you sure you shouldn’t just be thankful that I don’t murder you?” As he walks away, he tries to turn his words into lyrics for a song.

When Harmony’s forced to borrow money from Jim, his brother suggests he values his tabby cat far more than him. Harmony later returns home to find Jessica who’s returning his sweatshirt and wants her yoga mat. When Harmony asks her inside, she suggests that he’s like a character in a movie that you don’t care about, and, after a deep breath, tells him, “I just know that I’m not interested in you.”

Harmony burns Jessica’s pink yoga mat. In a self-destructive gesture – the idea stems from an incident involving Natasha and her dog – Harmony ends up in the hospital, where he spends a week in a coma. It’s here that Byington’s mosaic-like structure becomes fully evident. Most directors would try to pare down the number of characters, especially in such a sequence, but Byington creates a series of short jokes involving Harmony’s mother and Wes, and various friends who turn up to visit Harmony there.

Once Harmony wakes up from his coma and Jessica finally shows up, everyone clears out of the room. After she leaves, everyone returns to his bedside and Harmony, a white bandage still wrapped around his head, ends up playing the song he’s been working on for the entire film, called “The Finishing Touches.” Aren’t broken hearts the staple of most pop songs? Byington’s brilliance is the clever way he works music seamlessly into the film, transforming Harmony’s broken record into a brand new song.

Harmony and Me will play at the Wisconsin Film Festival (April 15-18) this spring. You can also check out the film’s Web site for other screenings. Like most comedies, it’s much funnier to see it with an audience.

Posted 7 January, 2010



We tend to associate one strand of American independent cinema with regionalism. Jeff Nichols’s Shotgun Stories, Lance Hammer’s Ballast, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo, and Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy serve as some recent examples. But a new trend rooted in globalism seems to be developing. Chris Smith made The Pool in India, So Yong Kim set Treeless Mountain in Korea, and Lee Isaac Chung shot Munyurangabo (2009) in, of all places, Rwanda. That Kim would locate her semi-autobiographical Treeless Mountain in Korea, where she grew up as a child, makes sense, while Chris Smith’s choice to transpose his story from Iowa to Goa, India is surprising, but the story is somewhat universal in scope. Yet the decision of Brooklyn-based filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung to make Munyurangabo in Rwanda, on the other hand, seems to take it to another level. Munyurangabo doesn’t sound like it could possibly be an American indie film, yet it most certainly is one.

Chung, who is Korean-American, grew up in rural Arkansas, attended Yale and later film school at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He went to Rwanda where his wife worked as a volunteer at a Christian mission. Chung originally intended to teach a filmmaking workshop for kids there, but he subsequently decided the it would be more ambitious and educational to use the class to make a feature. He and his friend Samuel Anderson co-wrote a ten-page outline, and much of the film, especially the dialogue, wound up being improvised on location. The film was shot in a mere eleven days. The result is Munyurangabo, which premiered in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2007, as well as other major international film festivals around the world. Its rights were acquired by the subscription-based distributor Film Movement and it had a brief theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives only last May. It is now available on both VOD and DVD.

Munyurangabo tells the story of two young friends, Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) and Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye). The story begins on a foreboding note. While everyone is distracted by a fight involving two men, Ngabo (as Munyurangabo is nicknamed) steals a machete on the streets of the capital city of Kigali. He later envisions it covered with blood, which is rendered in a single uninterrupted camera movement from the bloodied machete to his face and back again. After the title credits, Chung shows Ngabo, dressed in black with red sneakers, in a frontal wide shot as he pensively stares at the machete. Sangwa enters the frame from screen left and leans against the wall. He asks Ngabo, “Did you finish packing?” Ngabo stares at him and nods. The screen cuts to black. With spare economy – the stealing of the machete is conveyed in a ten brief shots – Chung manages to set up the story.

As we hear a song about people’s love for their country of Rwanda and the calamities that have befallen it – there is also written text that includes a biblical quote from Isaiah 51 – the two boys set out on a journey. On the way, they stop to visit Sangwa’s family, whom Sangwa hasn’t seen in three years. His mother (Narcicia Nyirabucyeye) is ecstatic that her runaway son has returned, but his father (Jean-Marie Nkurykiyinka) is not very forgiving. He chastises his son for shirking his responsibilities to his family and flat out tells him, “You should have been aborted.” The camera holds on Sangwa’s pained reaction. At twenty-two minutes, we learn that Ngabo plans to avenge the killing of his family in the genocide.

Sangwa’s parents take a disliking to Ngabo. He overhears Sangwa’s father tell his son, “That boy you are with, don’t you know he’s a Tutsi? Don’t you know Tutsis are nasty? They have put our people in submission now. Now I’m suffering because of them. They tried to put me in prison even though I’m old. And yet you walk with them?” At one point, when Ngabo spies the father nearby, he instinctively reaches for his machete. After Gwiza (Jean-Pierre Harerimana Mulomda), Sangwa’s childhood friend, mysteriously becomes ill, Ngabo asks if he can visit Gwiza, with whom he has become friends, mostly as a result of the boy’s ability to make Ngabo laugh by inventing funny stories about fictitious animals. Sangwa’s father, however, blames Ngabo for everything that has gone wrong lately, and his son for bringing Ngabo into their house.

After a festival of dancing, Ngabo tells Sangwa that he’s deeply offended by what the father said about him. Sangwa, who has finally reconciled with his father as a result of repairing a mud wall, informs Ngabo that he has decided to stay with his family. Ngabo tells Sangwa, whom he calls his only friend, “You have a family, a mother, and a father. You know why my life is like this? Why my life is hard? It’s because of your relatives. Because Hutus killed my family. My life would have been better without them.” Ngabo suddenly points his finger at Sangwa and says something we’ve suspected, which leads Sangwa to break off their friendship.

Ngabo retaliates by squealing on Sangwa, causing Sangwa’s father to turn on his son again. In terms of characterization, we are often only able to understand the motivation of characters through inference. Why did Sangwa run away from his family? We learn from Gwiza that Sangwa’s father is no longer drinking. Later, Ngabo has a conversation with Sangwa in which he wonders, if Sangwa’s father is “bad,” why he’s working so hard to try and please him. Why would Sangwa’s father beat Sangwa and expel him away solely on the basis of what Ngabo tells them (even if he might be drunk)? After he gets banished by his family, Sangwa tries to make up with Ngabo, but, once crossed, Ngabo no longer wants to have anything to do with him either, causing the friends to part ways.

Although the title of the film is Munyurangabo and we fully expect it to be his story, after the opening scenes, the film focuses more on Sangwa, while Ngabo recedes into the background. Once Ngabo ditches Sangwa at roughly 70 minutes, the narrative switches back to his now solitary journey, in which, in voiceover, he goes deep into his memory and recalls details of the genocide, while we see subjective shots of the landscape as he treks back home. In my book on screenwriting, I have a chapter about shifting protagonists (Fargo does this, as does Psycho, the film the Coen brothers reference), so such a strategy is by no means unprecedented. Chung has discussed the fact that he deliberately employed a split narrative, but it’s not clear why. One possible explanation is that the structure allows him to present both sides of the story or two different perspectives on what’s taking place.

The film takes another unexpected detour in the third act when Ngabo stops to eat at a café. Another patron (Edouard B. Uwayo) sees his machete. The guy comes over, announces he’s a poet and indicates that he will be reciting his poem the next day to commemorate National Liberation Day. The poet then recites his poem while looking directly into the camera. Entitled “Liberation is a Journey,” the poem is simply astonishing. Even as a pure sound poem (spoken in the Kinyarwandan language), it has the most unbelievable cadence I’ve ever heard. The poet proceeds to tell the story of what happened in Rwanda, addresses injustice, and what needs to change in the country. We originally think his poem will be brief, but it goes on for over six minutes – so long that it begins to feel surreal.

One might assume that such an epic poem would have an immediate impact on Ngabo, but right after this strange interlude he stands with his machete in a wide shot and then moves move forward toward his family’s dwelling. From behind, we watch as he slowly approaches the building and hear the sounds of cows and chickens in the background. He goes around the building, enters cautiously, and makes a discovery. After his father appears to him in a vision and he dreams of Sangwa, Ngabo’s journey of revenge leads to a final image of hope and redemption. The shot happens so quickly and it is so subtle and unexpected, you might miss it.

Munyurangabo represents an amazing accomplishment on Lee Isaac Chung’s part. Working from only a brief outline with an inexperienced and indigenous crew, he was forced to improvise while on location and had to communicate with his nonprofessional actors through translators. Chung chose to shoot his elliptical narrative on 16mm film rather than digital video for both aesthetic and practical purposes. He uses long takes, relies on natural light, and stages most of his scenes outdoors. Chung doesn’t try to hide his stylistic influences, which range from Ozu to the Dardenne brothers and Terrence Malick. He embeds his characters within the landscape through his inspired framing of shots and camera movement – it’s simply impossible to look at the terrain of Rwanda without being reminded about what happened there.

Although Munyurangabo ostensibly focuses on the lives and relationship of its teenage characters, Ngabo and Sangwa, as we discover, the film is really a parable about an impoverished land that is still very much haunted by ghosts.

Posted 3 January, 2010