CHAMPAIGN — "Kiryarwanda," a film about the Rwanda genocide, is not just about that subject, writer-director Alrick Brown said after it was screened at the 14th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival on Thursday.
"You just saw a film about us," he told the audience at the Virginia Theatre. "You saw a film about the Holocaust. You saw a film about Armenia. You saw a film about Syria. This is a film that happens over and over again."
Taking the most political stance yet of the 2012 Ebertfest guests, Brown also said, "We are in a country that practices vengeance as a policy and as a way of life. We even practice pre-emptive vengeance."
He said the intent of "Kinyarwanda," in which Brown interwove true stories from different ethnic and religious groups that experienced the genocide, is to have viewers look at the deprecatory terms they use to describe others and to realize they dehumanize and desensitize us all.
Brown, who has master's degrees in filmmaking and education, urged everyone to practice love and forgiveness, in their personal lives as well.
University of Wisconsin film Professor David Bordwell, who moderated the post-screening discussion, called "Kiryarwanda" — Alrick's first feature film — a remarkable achievement and an intricate piece of storytelling that didn't simplify the genocide but rather included everyone's views in precise ways.
Brown's team shot the movie in 16 days in Kigali, Rwanda, on a $250,000 budget, most of it grant money from the European Commission that was given to Ishmael Ntihabose, a Rwandan genocide survivor who executive produced the movie and co-wrote the script. He had written an initial 40-page screenplay; Brown revised it in two weeks and broke the script into separate yet related stories that went back and forth in time.
The movie opened in the setting of a 2004 reeducation camp on reconciliation and forgiveness and ended with a wedding. The love story of the young bride and groom "grounded the audience," Brown said.
Brown, an American who had made 10 short films before "Kiryarwanda" (the title refers to an official language of Rwanda), was enlisted as director after a friend of his visited the country, where he hopped into a cab driven by Ntihabose, who was listening to Bruce Springsteen. Ntihabose was driving a taxi to earn money to pay for engineering school. Brown's friend connected Ntihabose to Brown; Rwandans thought Ntihabose was crazy for using an African-American director.
The cast was made up of professional and non-professional actors, most of them Rwandan. Rwandans also headed up the casting, wardrobe and other departments, giving "Kinyarwanda" an authenticity that was at times frightening and at times heart-breaking for viewers.
Adding a sense of tension throughout the movie was the sound mix of barking dogs, crying children and gunfire, mostly. From the stage, Brown credited sound designer Matt Rocker.
Brown also said that he himself comes from the Hitchcock school of filmmaking, in which the imagination should do more work than the actual seeing of a movie.
"Kinyarwanda" was the 2011 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award winner for world cinema drama and won prizes at several other festivals. It will be released on DVD on May 1. It was screened in Rwanda in July.
"They were crying and laughing," co-producer Deatra Harris said of the viewers' reactions there. "They were just happy to have a film that really represented them and their experiences. It was a magical evening. I think they felt their story was finally told, and they loved the film."