Shortly after he got married, U.S.-born director Lee Isaac Chung went to Rwanda with his new wife. She regularly volunteered there and he went along, taking a job as a teacher. A filmmaker and photographer, Chung was so inspired by the students in his class that he decided to make a movie about what life in Rwanda is like in the wake of genocide and political upheaval.
"I always believed that the way I learned how to make films was simply by making a film," says Chung. "I thought if I could involve students in that process, that might be the best way to learn. I also felt that many of the films about Rwanda weren't expressing the Rwanda experience. They catered to the West. I thought this film needs to be for a Rwandan audience and something that the people there could take ownership of."
Chung, who'll answer questions after the two screenings of the film this weekend, ended up casting two of his students — Jeff Rutagengwa and Eric Ndorunkundiye — as Munyurangabo and Sangwa, respectively. The movie was made with an 11-page plot outline: Munyurangabo wants to take revenge for his father's death, and he and Sangwa end up rethinking that decision after visiting Sangwa's family along the way. Most of the dialogue is improvised, and the two young actors' own back stories are part of the narrative. The film is distinctive not only because it's a realistic slice of life, but also because the actors speak in their native tongue, making it the first feature film shot in Rwanda's language of Kinyarwanda.
"I was definitely influenced by [directors] Yasujiro Ozu and Abbas Kiarostami, who delve into the everyday experience," says Chung. "I thought if we could portray a very mundane experience in the everyday life of someone living in the countryside, this would lead to a revelation for the main character. The idea is that it's a life that goes deep into the actual dirt. A lot of my students had parents who lived in the countryside, and their parents never say farming. They say 'digging.' They have a real pride in the earth."
One of the film's themes is the complex parent-child relationship that's emerged post-genocide, reflected in the way Sangwa argues with his father.
"That was based on some of the experiences of our students who have a profound sense of guilt that they abandoned their parents," says Chung. "Some are sending back money. The actor who plays Sangwa did run away from his mom and hadn't seen her in three years. That's where that story comes from. He was really wrestling with that. He was trying to find daily sustenance through odd jobs and petty crimes."
Chung developed a close relationship with his two lead actors that continues to this day, even though the film was shot two years ago.
"My wife and I feel like we've adopted these guys," says the Korean-American director who grew up in rural Arkansas. "We're trying to see them through school. They hadn't finished primary school. They're currently doing that. Eric wants to go to a trade school and become a mechanic. Jeff wants to go to college, even if that means he starts college when he's 30. We're constantly looking for people to sponsor their school bills. I really lucked out in casting them."