Posted: 06/03/2009



by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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“One of those miracles that can illuminate the cinema…it is in every frame a beautiful and powerful film—a masterpiece,” says the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert.

It’s hard not to use veteran critic Roger Ebert’s summation of a great film to set up my review of Munyurangabo, which will be available on DVD October 6. Munyurangabo is a brilliant, telling exploration of two young men’s lives, each knowing that under normal circumstances that would never have befriended each other.
Beginning in the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, the two friends, Ngabo (Munyurangabo), a Tutsi, played by Jeff Rutagengwa, and Sangwa, a Hutu played by Eric Ndorunkundiye, visit the farmland home that the latter had deserted many years before. They travel mostly by walking and hitching rides across the Rwandan countryside.

Before they set off on their trip, Ngabo steals a machete, and imagines it’s covered with blood and then packs it away in his pack. This machete figures prominently throughout the film.
Ngabo wants justice for his parents who were killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and Sangwa simply wants to atone for the sins he’s committed against his father—mainly that of leaving home and staying away for so long in the midst of turmoil. When they first arrive at Sangwa’s village, Sangwa’s joy combines with tension, as his mother Narcicia Nyirabucyeye is thrilled to see him and even more proud that her son has brought her some fabric. His father (Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyinka), however, chastises him for staying away so long and not hanging around to help with the chores or to help work so that his younger siblings could attend school.

Both parents disapprove of Ngabo, especially after they discover that he is a Tutsi, has a machete and is on a redemptive murder mission. But the two young men try to deal with the stress, until their relationship creates too much tension at times and at others prompt them to relate to each other with such ease—with performances that are so genuine and innocent—that it really speaks to a bond between two friends who may be unaware about the symbolism of their friendship.

As they move around the countryside and back and forth from Sangwa’s house doing chores and hanging out, there is often an eerie silence that seems to not want to disturb the tragic events that have occurred there. But it is these very events that serve to undermine the friendship that the pair so desperately try to maintain. One chore has the pair fixing the family home with a mud concoction to fill in the holes, and the two have an earnest discussion where Ngabo blames Sangwa for his hard life and admits that he thinks his father was in on the killings of the people in the Tutsi village.
At times, Ngabo is alone and toys with the machete that he hopes will bring him comfort and some kind of vigilante justice for the life, family and future that were taken away from him.
Sangwa’s father tries to impress upon him that his “friend” is really the enemy whose family is similarly responsible for his hard life and suffering, and Ngabo looks upon Sangwa’s father both with such hatred or perceived yearning for his own father.
They come to a turning point, where Sangwa’s father kicks him out, and Ngabo rejects him, not wanting him to follow him on his journey.

There were rivers clogged with bodies, and there were babies sucking their mother’s dead breasts are the things that Ngabo recalls as he continues his journey alone. But in the end, even after Ngabo reaches his family home, the two friends reunite. How they deal with their feelings or even begin to repair what at times has been a contentious relationship is left to the unknown. But what is obvious is that Ngabo and Sangwa are a new breed of Rwandans, who care for one another—even though they are from different tribes.

Munyurangabo is an ambitious undertaking, with a cultural melting pot of participants: two African main characters, a white American screenwriter and a Korean-American director.
Munyurangabo has been called “An astonishing and thoroughly masterful debut” film by director Lee Isaac Chung. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the AFI Film Festival; the Best Narrative Feature at the Sarasota Film Festival and was the Official Selection Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival.
Munyurangabo, while not as fast-paced as Hotel Rwanda, is a magnificent film that silently digs a bit deeper into the 1994 Rwandan genocide and is available October 6 on DVD from Film Movement and other DVD retailers. Visit the Web site at

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.

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