Lee Isaac Chung: The Storm of Progress

This interview was originally published at Sojourners.

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In early 1940, just months before he would die while fleeing the Gestapo in Spain, the Jew­ish-German literary critic Walter Benjamin assembled his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” a brief collection of observations that is equal parts theology and Marxist analysis. In Thesis IX, he studies Paul Klee’s modernist painting “Angelus Novus” and finds in it a usable metaphor for history. Klee’s work depicts a magnificent, expressionist angel whose face is turned toward the past. His mouth is agape and his wings are fully extended as he concentrates his gaze on the ever-growing catastrophe behind him. The angel wishes to pause so that he might revive and redeem human history, but “a storm is blowing from Paradise.” “This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.” Benjamin concludes, “This storm is what we call progress.”

Lee Isaac Chung alludes to “Angelus Novus” when describing his first feature-length film, Munyurangabo, a poetic and beautifully humane snapshot of Rwanda as it exists today, nearly a decade and a half after the genocide. The film, which premiered in May 2007 at the Cannes Film Festival and has since played at fests in Toronto, Los Angeles, London, Rotterdam, Berlin, and elsewhere, adopts a view of “progress” similar to Benjamin’s. “One audience member in Berlin challenged us for ending the movie on a note of hopefulness,” Chung says. “But it’s not a naive or simple hope. Any progress made in Rwanda will come from the hard work of reconciliation combined with a wide-eyed acknowledgment of the past. That’s why we conceived of this simple story of two young boys. Munyurangabo is, in part, about how memory shapes the formation of identity—personal, cultural, and national—and how that identity shapes our behavior.”

The heroes of Chung’s film are ‘Ngabo (short for Munyur­angabo, played by Jeff Ruta­gengwa) and Sangwa (Eric Ndo­r­un­kundiye), teen­age boys who became friends while working as porters in a market in Kigali. At the start of the film, they set off together on a journey, stopping first at the remote village that Sangwa had fled three years earlier. They intend to stay for only a few hours, but Sangwa’s reunion with his mother and father is promising, and the glimpse of domestic happiness it offers leaves him increasingly unnerved about the real purpose of their trip: to avenge the murder of ‘Ngabo’s father by finding and killing the man responsible. “I heard so many similar stories from children their age,” Chung says. “Eric’s father was killed in the genocide, and Jeff’s went missing as well. Like so many of the orphans who can be found in the ghettoes of Kigali, they’ve both really struggled. The film is a composite of their stories and others like them.”

CHUNG GAINED access to the orphans of Kigali through his association with Youth With a Mission (YWAM), a relief organization that provides Christian discipleship training and ministers to children, widows, and people suffering the effects of HIV/AIDS. “Soon after we got married, my wife decided that she wanted to spend another summer in Rwanda. She’d volunteered with YWAM several times already and was eager to return. Rather than continue agonizing over the stalled plans for my first big film, I decided, instead, to just drop it completely and go with her.” Taking with him two friends from college and a camera he’d bought on eBay, Chung set out to teach filmmaking. “I’d taught some classes as a graduate assistant in film school and figured this was something unique I could offer.”

Chung’s goal was to make a film there—in Rwanda, with a small budget and a small crew made up of orphans and others he’d met in Kigali. “After looking at the types of films that were coming out of Rwanda and finding no narrative films that Rwandans could claim as their own, it became clear to us that we should treat this project seriously with the goal that it could be a Rwandan film, primarily for their audience.” He and one of his partners, Samuel Anderson, composed a treatment for the film but never fully scripted it, choosing instead to improvise the dialog during rehearsals with their cast of first-time actors. As the project evolved, Chung, Anderson, and their other partner, Jenny Lund, also decided to shoot the movie on film, a relatively risky and expensive proposition in this age of cheap, high-quality digital video. “It just kept getting bigger,” Chung laughs. “Our ambition for the production, I mean. The more we talked, the more we wanted it to look a certain way. We needed film.”

Presumably, Munyurangabo’s in­clusion in the lineups of so many prestigious festivals can be attributed in part to Chung’s photography. It is a strikingly beautiful film. And, particularly for a first-time director, Chung demonstrates a genuine talent for an essential aspect of his craft: He knows where to put the camera. When I ask about my favorite shot in the film, a simple image of Sangwa’s and ‘Ngabo’s faces in profile, he thanks me for the compliment but seems reticent to talk at length about the scene. “I knew what shots would come before it and what would come after it, and I knew I needed to break the rhythm with a quieter moment.” Chung’s humility can actually be felt in the image itself. Like the filmmakers to whom he owes the greatest debt—Terrence Malick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne—Chung has a sensitive curiosity about the human face, and the style of his film invites viewers to reflect upon their shared dignity rather than to simply pass judgment, as films so often do.

With some embarrassment, Chung admits another reason his film has found an audience at international festivals: “Several programmers have told me the film isn’t what they expected it to be.”

“Which is what, exactly?” I ask.

“I guess they expected another film about white guilt.”

We both laugh.

CHUNG WAS BORN in rural Arkansas, where his Korean father had moved to raise his children and establish a farm. “I guess it isn’t the typical immigrant story,” he admits. “Most leave the land in order to find economic opportunity in the city, but my father had other ideas.” After getting his first glimpse of New York City as a teenager, Chung followed his older sister to Yale, where he pursued his interests in politics and studied biology. His long-term plans changed, however, after he and a group of friends began watching foreign and classic art films together. Instead of medical school, Chung moved to Salt Lake City to study film at the University of Utah.

“Munyurangabo is a tricky movie for the festivals to categorize,” he continues. “It’s usually programmed as an African film, and I guess it is in many respects. In fact, it’s the first narrative feature film ever made in the Kinyarwanda language. But I’m an American, obviously, and so that complicates things.” Recently, several Hollywood productions have taken on the subject of African genocide, including the Oscar-nominated films Hotel Rwanda and The Last King of Scotland, the latter of which reimagines the murderous dictatorship of Idi Amin through the eyes of a young white European doctor. The film adopts that perspective to a fault, I think, turning the people of Uganda into incomprehensible and exotic curiosities. As a result, Scotland’s most affecting moments appeal to sentiments like pity and horror—and to our shared guilt—but at the expense of lasting understanding or empathy.

What distinguishes Munyuran­gabo from the slew of “white guilt” films is best typified by a scene in which Sangwa, hoping to regain his father’s respect, joins his neighbors in the fields. Chung’s camera watches from a distance as they work together to till the hard, packed soil. Sangwa’s movements are labored and unnatural; his father raises and drops his hoe with a practiced grace. (“I joke that what Akira Kurosawa did for rain-soaked samurai battles, I want to do for farming scenes.”) Were it not for Chung’s tasteful use of traditional Rwandan music and several seconds of slow motion, the scene could be mistaken for documentary footage. Jean Marie Nkurikiyinka (the father) really is a farmer, Ndorunkundiye (Sangwa) really has raised himself on the streets of Kigali, and, regardless of the fact that Chung’s story is manufactured, all that real human history and experience is captured there in his images of bodies in motion. “Here,” the father says, “like this,” demonstrating for his son the proper technique. And with that unexpected moment of encouragement, the possibility of hope is suddenly made tangible.

INSPIRED BY A Christian survivor of the genocide who once quoted the passage to him, Chung uses Isaiah 51:19-20 as an epigraph for the film: “These double calamities have come upon you; Who can comfort you? Ruin and destruction, famine and sword; Who can console you? Your sons have fainted. They lie at the head of every street, like antelope caught in a net. They are filled with the wrath of the Lord and the rebuke of your God.”

“Is this an Old Testament film or a New Testament film?” I ask.

After a slight pause, Chung answers: “I have great respect for people who put all of their hope in a future in which the world has been redeemed and made perfect. I have a faith in that future, too. But we’re here now, and the world is far from perfect, and we’re required to work. It’s complicated. It’s like that storm in ‘Angelus Novus.’ Are you familiar with it?”