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A Conversation With Lee Isaac Chung (MUNYURANGABO)

Raised in rural Arkansas by Korean parents, Lee Isaac Chung headed to Yale to study Biology. But after seeing Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, a new seed was planted. He began to voraciously study cinema and subsequently got his graduate degree at the University of Utah. After shooting a documentary in China (which has yet to see the light of day as the material was quite sensitive), Chung headed to Rwanda to teach film production to eager youngsters, but he realized that the best way to teach them was to make an actual film. The result of that experience was Munyurangabo, which went on to premiere in the Un Certain Regard program at Cannes before embarking on a hugely successful festival run throughout the world. Deservedly so. Munyurangabo is one of the most impressive low-budget American indies of the decade, a tender, beautifully photographed tale of impending revenge that shines a positive, poetic light on the Rwandan situation in the years following the genocide (read Tom Hall’s review here).

For a while, it appeared that Munyurangabo might never find a proper distributor, a distressing thought to anyone who had seen it. But mercifully, this past winter, it was picked up for distribution by Film Movement, and is making its theatrical debut at Anthology Film Archives beginning Friday, May 29th (it’s already available on DVD for Film Movement subscribers). On the day that he was about to finish color correcting his newest feature, Lucky Life, I met up with Chung in Brooklyn to discuss Munyurangabo, his new film, and where he hopes to take his career next.

H2N: Munyurangabo is your debut narrative feature. How did that come about? From an outsider’s perspective, it’s a bold first feature to make in that you were shooting in not just a foreign land but in a foreign language as well.

LIC: I guess to put it into context, during film school I had made two big short films. And one of them starred non-Americans. They were both international students. I admit it was heavily influenced by Jarmusch. There was one character who’s Japanese and another character who’s Mexican and it’s a love story between these two. And their communication is terrible because their English is not very good, and so they speak to each other in their own language and neither understands the other. That sort of thing interested me. Then I made a Spanish language film and I don’t speak Spanish. And after I graduated I went to China and shot a documentary, so that might be my first feature. It was a 70-minute documentary in Chinese and I don’t speak Chinese.

H2N: Were you with someone who did?

LIC: I didn’t have a translator at all in China.

H2N: Really???

LIC: No. I took one year of Chinese at Yale, so I thought that would be enough. Once I got there, I realized that I didn’t understand anything. (laughs)

H2N: That’s crazy!

LIC: I was in a region where they speak a different dialect. So I just figured that I would have to assume with some intuition that I knew what I was getting. More often than not, it seem that the intuition was working.

H2N: That would be a great film school experiment, actually, to make students shoot films in a different language. Do you think that made you more sensitive or taught you anything about directing?

LIC: It’s something I wouldn’t have done had I known what I was about to go through, but, in retrospect, realizing it was the best thing for me. Before going, I remember hearing another Jarmusch quote—this is gonna sound like Jarmusch is my mentor, he’s not…

H2N (laughs): He’s everybody’s at a certain stage.

LIC: In an interview where he was talking about Mystery Train, he said that directing in a foreign language is not as hard as you think; you know when the take is good. And I always thought he might have something there. For instance, I don’t speak Korean very well but my parents speak Korean to me, and a lot of our interaction seems to be me just having to figure out what is being said and trusting that it’s right. So maybe there was a little bit of training there already, where I learned to go beyond a certain barrier.

H2N: With regards to Rwanda, was that an idea from afar or had you been there before?

LIC: My wife had been going to Rwanda for maybe three summers to volunteer at this Christian relief base. She said we should go back after we got married. That was in 2005. So the next summer, I was already planning to go there to teach cinema. From what I understood, there were a bunch of students there who wanted to learn video production and they were just waiting for someone to come and teach them. So I thought I could do that. And then in January it dawned on me that the only way to teach this was if we actually made a film together. And slowly it became very clear that the idea to make a film needed to be very serious. It just couldn’t be an exercise or a workshop. We needed to be very professional about it. I thought that would be the best approach.

H2N: Were your two leads part of the class or were they separate from the production team?

LIC: The production team was separate. Edouard (B. Uwayo), the poet, he was part of the class. And the cousin, Gwiza (Jean Pierre Harerimana Mulomda), he was also part of the class. The place where my wife was volunteering does an outreach to street children where they go and find these kids living in the streets. There’s an individual who helps them to get off drugs and find work, and also to build some sort of community with them and steer them away from violence. He was also in my class because he wanted to learn video production, so I would go and hang out with him when he would go into the streets. He would start these soccer leagues and he would ref these very competitive soccer matches between all these orphans and runaways.

Since the story that I was planning dealt with two teenagers who were survivors of the genocide, I decided to interview those actual orphans. I wasn’t planning to cast anyone from that group, but two of those guys stood out to me and they were Eric (Ndorunkundiye) and Jeff (Rutagengwa). So I ended up casting them. Their stories just mirrored the film in so many ways and also they were best friends in real life, so I thought it was too much of a coincidence to not cast them. Their performances weren’t that great when I decided to audition them but somehow I thought the reality of their characters would come through if we filmed it correctly.

H2N: What was the time span between you deciding on them and starting to shoot?

LIC: It might have just been two weeks. Everything was very quick. I was there for a total of nine weeks. I taught photography and general filmmaking techniques for six weeks. And then we shot for fourteen days and celebrated for four days at the end. So near the end of the six weeks is when I was finally casting.

H2N: How about the story and screenplay? It seems like it was an organic process. How much changed after you found your two leads?

LIC: The intention was always to somehow create realistic portrayals of teenagers living in Rwanda now. The first idea was to focus on three teenagers at different ages, with the character of Ngabo being the oldest. When I arrived there I realized it would be better to focus on the last two characters, which were Ngabo and Sangwa, and the journey that they take. That’s why the narrative is split. It seems as though Sangwa is the main character at the beginning and then it switches to Ngabo. That was the original intent of the film. I had a general outline of the emotional journey that the characters needed to go on, but I didn’t know how that might be achieved. Once I got there and started interviewing people and talking to people about what they’d gone through, of course that entire emotional narrative had to be thrown out and replaced with something else. The original kernel of someone who is out for revenge and decides against it because of a journey to the countryside into an Ozu-like family environment—that stayed the same. But the way in which the story unfolds, that had to come in Rwanda only.

I haven’t gone back and looked at our shooting script with the finished film but our shooting script was pretty well finalized by that point—and by script I mean a ten-page outline of scenes. Those remained the same. The details within each of those scenes changed according to what the actors felt they would actually say or do in that situation. For instance, when Sangwa is reunited with his mother, this is something that comes from his actual life. He had run away from home and returned after three years of not having contact. He wrote the scene for us and told it how it unfolded in his own life. He basically directed it too. He told the mother exactly how she should act and he told us how he acted. At first I said, “You’re going to be very cautious and you don’t know if you’re in trouble,” but he said that’s not what happened. He was just so joyous to see his mom. So we decided to film it that way.

H2N: Thank God. Rather than you being like, “No, this is how you feel.” A lot of early films reflect that problem. Instead of understanding how to deal with non-professional actors, filmmakers try to force them into being somebody they’re not. It never works.

LIC: I think it’s more liberating to open it up to the actors and to not provide details.

H2N: Your film is a perfect example of why it’s so hard for me to let this issue go, but you shot Munyurangabo on film. Talk about your commitment to celluloid, especially with regards to this project.

LIC: I had a budget lined up for if we shot on HDV, for instance, and it would have made a lot of sense to do that: we were working with non-professionals, we could get more takes, that was the philosophy. The cost would be very low. But it seemed to me that if we wanted to take this project very seriously and commit to it, then I would want to commit as much of my own resources to making it look as good as I think it should look. And I didn’t think the look would be right with video. Now this continues to be a problem because film is out of reach for the students that I taught. So now they work solely on video. One of the advantages to what we did is give the students a desire and hunger to shoot on film. They’re at a point now where they’re starting to get more grants and get more attention from foreign companies so at least they’ve shot and film and they know what it looks like. For me, I edited the film on a flatbed.

H2N: You did?!

LIC: It’s never really publicized, but I stuck with film throughout the process.

H2N: Craziness!

LIC: Yeah. I don’t know, I’ve always just loved film. I knew I wasn’t gonna shoot with artificial lighting, so you don’t get the dynamic range that you get on celluloid. And Rwanda has of course very bright exteriors. I didn’t think that would work well with video. Also, we were going into the countryside often. With video, you need to worry about electricity a lot.

H2N: I was gonna ask that. A film camera might have been the more practically viable option if you’re looking at it in that way.

LIC: I think I charged our film battery twice during our entire shoot. We were working with this Éclair ACL, and these were old journalist cameras. The battery pack I bought for it was humongous! The way they designed those cameras was to allow for a lot of shooting without having to recharge. Those cameras are built like tanks.

H2N: What was your shooting ratio? Did you have a lot of film to burn?

LIC: No we didn’t. I’m gonna sound like a real film nerd, which I am (H2N laughs), but I was reading this thing by Philippe Garrel recently where he talks about all the technical errors in his films.

H2N: I’ve read that. About the lens flares and stuff.

LIC: He said that’s just an economic decision. You could do it again but economically it wouldn’t make sense. That’s the way we were working. I tried not to be a perfectionist at all. I think we shot with a 3-1 ratio? Some ridiculous number. It makes editing great!

H2N: That makes your decision to shoot on a Steenbeck seem less crazy.

LIC: It would have been a big headache. A lot of it was a financial resource that we didn’t have.

H2N: And how about finishing on 35mm? Was that a demand by Cannes or was it another aesthetic decision you made on your own?

LIC: The cost difference between doing HD and 35 was not great enough. 35 was definitely more expensive, but if we were going to spend the money for an HD master then we might as well go the extra step and do 35. At that point I just had to do a lot more fundraising. It was much easier once we had the Cannes label on the film to ask people to donate or contribute.

H2N: Stylistically, Munyurangabo feels very original to me in how it draws from so many different reference points but in an organic and not distracting way. Was that a function of you working so quickly? How much of the visual approach was premeditated versus simply reacting to the actual locations and situations you were in?

LIC: Originally before going, the aesthetic I thought I would employ most would be what I had seen the Dardennes do. I think it’s pretty obvious the influence they have on the film. I think I strayed away from that in the way that we put the camera on the tripod quite a bit. Even though I think they used tripod quite a lot in La Promesse. I never storyboard or I never prepare the shots mentally but wait until I’m at the locations. And that was true for Lucky Life as well. So it’s a lot of working on intuition. But I think what inevitably happens is that my film nerd comes through and I start filming in ways that I’d seen in the past. I don’t know how to escape that. I tried to escape it more with Lucky Life. I admit I don’t like that aspect of Munyurangabo when I watch it.

H2N: You see your references too clearly, perhaps?

LIC: Yeah. Sometimes I think I’m focusing a lot on the references. I don’t want to reveal too much about that! (both laugh)

H2N: That brings up another tricky question: how to balance the subconscious influence versus the conscious influence. How do you go about trying to reconcile that?

LIC: Ultimately, the focus that I’d like to have is on the subject. I feel like any work of art needs to somehow—if we consider this art—it needs to focus on the subject and adapt its style to that. When I was shooting, I tried to be more conscious of the situation and what would be represented on the screen. Somehow that always drew to mind images that I’d seen in other films. So it was almost like making a collage for me. With Munyurangabo I didn’t fight it at all. I just decided that I’m gonna work with it because this is all I know. Lucky Life is a very different film. People who have seen it have been surprised that it’s nothing like Munyurangabo. And it’s tough ‘cause it’s not out there yet, but I do admit that Munyurangabo was more focused on a very immediate subject, and I feel that Lucky Life is a little bit more distanced and more about the creation of the film itself, if that makes any sense. Whereas Munyurangabo was more about this actual real subject. I don’t know what direction I’m headed in, in that regard. There’s a certain balance there that needs to take place. I’m not sure I’ve found it just yet.

H2N: How many people do you show your films to in the process of getting to the picture-lock stage?

LIC: First, I let my main collaborator, Sam Anderson, watch it with me with his wife and my wife and two other people who I trust very deeply. That’s the initial test screening. Then after that it’s just a slow process of incorporating certain changes. If I hear a criticism continually then I might incorporate it.

H2N: How are you with the idea of killing your darlings? Is it hard to listen to criticism or are you able to let go of your own connection to the material?

LIC: Initially, especially with Lucky Life, I was a bit childish in thinking that the fact that I’m not letting go shows that I’m talented rather than showing any good judgment at all. (H2N laughs) And then, as I thought about suggestions that were made, then I realized, “Wow, what I thought was right is not working at all.” So it’s been a big humbling process, in a good way, I hope. I guess I’m trying not to take myself too seriously nowadays. That’s an important lesson.

H2N: Was it important for you to get to this stage of a genuine theatrical release for Munyurangabo, or was the great festival run and all of the awards enough?

LIC: It definitely exceeded all expectations. I’m just happy with how things have turned out. I couldn’t have imagined that this is what would have happened to the film. It’s been amazing. What’s become clear is that it’s not sustainable as a career for me to do this because of course I didn’t make any income from this film. I’m in the negative! (both laugh)

H2N: You gave away income!

LIC: I thought perhaps with Lucky Life I’d be able to do that but I’m just now coming out with a film at a time when the market for films such as these is very bad. I really don’t know. I have a feeling I’ll try to do some more genre cinema.

H2N: Having made a doc, do you have an urge to get back into that or are you firmly rooted in fiction?

LIC: I have a new script that I’m working on that I’d like to shoot in Germany. I think I’d like to keep working with fiction. If I do non-fiction I wouldn’t want to do the way I was doing it but something more like a blend between fiction and non-fiction I would quite like, like some of those Herzog documentaries.

I think we’re at a place with our culture right now, people are so obsessed with what they consider to be unfiltered information, that it’s troubling for me. I feel like there’s a lot of information out there, and a lot of awareness, but it’s very clear that there’s very little change that’s happening. I still believe that fiction is a very powerful way of creating change or moving people in a certain way. My constant criticism of documentary is that it feeds into this information age, people watching countless news channels. People might not agree. I’m gonna stop there. (both laugh)

H2N: I’ve been having that sustainable life discussion with a lot of people, that it’s fiscally just a horrendous idea to make films on this level. How do you reconcile that problem?

LIC: I think the option for me is there if I make more commercially minded films. That’s what I’m exploring now. If I’m able to get a film off the ground soon in which I get a small salary, then I don’t mind eking by with small salaries and making films. At the same time, I am interested in genre cinema, so I’m quite open to doing something more commercially minded. I used to call that selling out.

H2N: Then you realize it’s called l-i-v-i-n-g.

LIC: And we’re American, so we have to sell out! (both laugh)

— Michael Tully

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Michael Tully is an award-winning writer/director whose films have garnered widespread critical acclaim, his projects having premiered at some of the most renowned film festivals across the globe. He is also the former (and founding) editor of this site. In 2006, Michael's first feature, COCAINE ANGEL, chronicling a tragic week in the life of a young drug addict, world premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film immediately solidified the director as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s "25 New Faces of Independent Film,” a reputation that was reinforced a year later when his follow-up feature, SILVER JEW, a documentary capturing the late David Berman's rare musical performances in Tel Aviv, world-premiered at SXSW and landed distribution with cult indie-music label Drag City. In 2011, Michael wrote, directed, and starred in his third feature, SEPTIEN, which debuted at the 27th annual Sundance Film Festival before being acquired by IFC Films' Sundance Selects banner. A few years later, in 2014, Michael returned to Sundance with the world premiere of his fourth feature, PING PONG SUMMER, an ‘80s set coming-of-age tale that was quickly picked up for theatrical distribution by Gravitas Ventures. In 2018, Michael wrote and directed the dread-inducing genre film DON'T LEAVE HOME, which has been described as "Get Out with Catholic guilt in the Irish countryside" (IndieWire). The film premiered at SXSW and was subsequently acquired by Cranked Up Films and Shudder.

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