Special to the Parade
Writer and director Kivu Ruhorahoza spent almost two decades creating his first feature length film, Gray Matter, an account of the stress and burden of living through the Rwanda genocide. He felt a mission, however, to bring it to a world audience. It was, he explains, a way of expiating his survivor’s guilt. Aged 11 at the beginning, he escaped the main action at a safe location while his family hid from the terror in Rwanda’s capitol
The three intertwining stories that he tells of how Rwandans managed emotionally to survive this upheaval are separate episodes, the second a hallucination, but they weave a tight-knit pattern demanding keen interpretation and insight. The intrigue of figuring it all out is part of the fascination of the film.
The jury at the Tribeca Film Festival praised especially Kivu’s audacious and experimental approach, as well as his courage and vision. The film is rich in symbolic imagery for viewers to decipher. Unlike the first three films in the festival, humor is out of place. It will be screened once only at the Island Cinema at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, February 19.
The first of the episodes introduces a young filmmaker seeking a government grant to make his film several years after the genocide has subsided. He is met with roadblocks at every turn. They want positive new subjects like the AIDS awareness program, not embarrassing ancient history. He finally finds foreign assistance.
The second segment is the film maker’s original concept. It portrays a man locked in a mental facility diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. He relives the genocide in his room represented by his interaction with a live cockroach trapped in a jar. One of several riddles a non-Rwandan viewer has to figure out is that “cockroach” was the sobriquet ascribed to the Tutsis, the principal targets of the genocide. In his hallucinations, hands reach through his barred window to applaud the insect’s demise, and deliver keys to open his prison door. As a signal of the international community’s involvement, the hands are white.
As the camera migrates to the third episode, it portrays Yvan and Justine, brother and sister survivors, trying to rebuild their lives after the genocide. Actor Ramadhan Shami Bizima received a Tribeca Best Actor award as Yvan. His representation of post traumatic stress disorder is gripping in its bizarre manifestation of that distressing emotional condition. He dresses strangely and hallucinates. There are no emotional fireworks here, just smoldering quiet, lonely agony emphasized by Justine’s willingness to prostitute herself to pay for Yvan’s psychiatric care. In this guise she symbolizes the strength of Rwandan women. In the dearth of men after the genocide, the women showed the strength to pull Rwandan society together and rebuild their lives.
An eloquent example of key visual elements in the film is an artistic mobile assembled of pieces of broken glass and keys. It appears casually early in the film and significantly at the end. Justine sees it as an expression of her brother’s salvation in the creation of an art form and by extension, similar redemption for other Rwandan men.
Films like this arise from time to time, especially in countries recovering from turmoil, demonstrating the remarkable creativity and artistic innovation that periods of trial can inspire. After the screening, the audience is invited to light refreshments, a chance to discuss the film and a brief survey of their impressions.