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Originally published June 25, 2009 at 3:44 PM | Page modified June 25, 2009 at 3:49 PM

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Movie review

Tale of two Rwandan boys draws viewers into 'Munyurangabo'

Lee Isaac Chung's provocative tale of two young Rwandan men — one a Tutsi, the other a Hutu — who are best friends for a while. Movie review by John Hartl.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"Munyurangabo," with Jeff Rutagengwa, Eric Dorunkundiye. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, from a screenplay by Lee Isaac Chung and Samuel Anderson. 97 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. In Kinyarwanda, with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum.

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The first thing you notice in this provocative Rwandan film is the unembarrassed physical affection between two homeless teenage boys: one a Tutsi, the other a Hutu.

Supposedly they're deadly enemies, but circumstances have thrown them together. They've been without their families for a long time, and their life on the road has clearly made them as tight as two people can be.

Then one of the boys, Sangwa, comes home, and the old hatreds surface. The boy's mother accepts Sangwa warmly, but she won't feed his pal, Munyurangabo. Sangwa's father shames his son with a humiliating lecture that climaxes with his declaration that "you should have been aborted."

Gradually the boys' friendship disintegrates, the goal of their road trip is revealed and the filmmakers move into less personal territory. National Liberation Day is celebrated, and the narrative all but stops for the country's poet laureate, Edouard B. Uwayo, to recite a poem that concludes that Rwanda has become "a cemetery without peace."

"Munyurangabo" is the first feature directed by a Korean-American filmmaker, Lee Isaac Chung, who shot the movie in Rwanda with a small crew, inexperienced actors and a brief script that was more an outline than a screenplay.

It claims to be the first feature film to be produced in the Kinyarwanda language, though there's nothing surprising about the way the picture was shot and assembled. It's the latest in a long and worthy line of low-budget, partly improvised neorealist movies that mix fiction with documentarylike qualities.

Because so much depends on the resources of the actors and the improv instincts of the director (who also co-wrote the script), there's always a danger that they'll be smitten with footage that doesn't click — or try to stretch it and make it work in the cutting room.

This time the filmmakers succeed, partly because they trust the power of the subject (the genocide in Rwanda is suggested but never graphically portrayed), partly because they so skillfully draw us into the boys' relationship. Lee's camera always seems to be there when they're in the midst of a revealing moment. And Jeff Rutagengwa as the haunted, vengeful Munyurangabo and Eric Dorunkundiye as the less mournful Sangwa are naturals.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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