Thursday, April 28, 2011

TFF: Unusual Tale of Africa in 'Grey Matter'

Balthazar (Herve Kimenyi) will not allow a lack of financing to put the breaks on his first film in "Grey Matter." Photo by Ari Wegner.

THERE’S been much ado about the fact that newcomer Kivu Ruhorahoza’s “Grey Matter (Matiere Grise)” is the first film from a Rwandan director who actually lives in the country or who lived in the country at the time he made the film. The reserved, sad-eyed young star-on-the-rise has a residence in London.

One supposes that this would be considered remarkable. Even more remarkable, however, is the subject matter.

The film that financially strapped director, Balthazar (Herve Kimenyi), shoots takes on a life of its own in “Grey Matter,” which had its world premiere yesterday at the 10th Annual Tribeca Film Festival. The film within a film, touchingly and affectingly explores the post-traumatic stress syndrome suffered by Yvan (Shami Bizimana) in the aftermath of the Rwandan civil war and genocide. He and his sister, Justine (Ruth Shanel Nirere), are the sole survivors of their family, which included prominent activist parents. They are two young people alone in a culture that prizes family.

Yvan spends his days and night in the sparsely and shabbily furnished home he shares with his younger sister. Wearing a helmet he refuses to remove, he whiles away the hours painting the same photo over and over. That is, when he is not seeing burning bodies, rape and torture.

Nothing Yvan does - praying to Allah, fondling rosary beads, dousing fire on a TV screen projecting burning bodies - can erase the images. No amount of encouragement Justine gives or the sacrifice she makes to ensure that he gets visits and pills from a doctor help either. Yvan’s world is very small, insular and solitary; it is as if he is trying to live as he imagines a cockroach would. It is this disparaging term that the majority Hutus used to refer to the minority Tutsis.

Most remarkable of all is that Yvan was in Belgium when the atrocities occurred. He was not there! How, then, can he be so affected? It is a riveting performance by SB. He lays himself bear as a young man who is almost rendered prostrate with anxiety and inertia. He is unafraid to cry, wail, curl up in the fetal position, to run and hide.

As Justine, the gorgeous doe-eyed RSN is effective in a restrained performance. Justine, too, has suffered and is still suffering atrocities, but keeps a cool exterior, making one wonder when/if she will blow her top.

Kivu Ruhorahoza, writer, director and producer of "Grey Matter." Photo by Eljah Molanba Tanda.

"Grey Matter" is not the sort of personal psychological study one is accustomed to seeing out of Africa. Most of the few that address such issues usually revolve around the effects on Europeans or nominally address the effects on Africans through the eyes of Europeans. Here is an African meltdown told from the point of view of an African by an African.

One can safely assert that “Grey Matter” is inspired by KR’s life. During the war, he was almost 12 and living with his grandmother in a western province of the country near Congo. He was in touch with his family by phone and could hear the “terror” in their voices. He internalized this, KR told the audience during a Q&A following the screening.

Once the war was over and KR returned home - his family survived but families of some of his friends did not - no one talked about the war. “We are the Japanese of Africa,” he said in reference to that group’s well-documented stoicism among Asian peoples.

In response to a query about whether "Grey Matter" could cause upset when it is shown in Rwanda, KR noted that his country must come to terms with the after-affects of the war. “Grey Matter,” the director disclosed, has been cathartic for him. He hopes it will be so, too, for his countrymen.

With such a weighty subject out of the way, KR can “go and make nothing but cartoons,” though he is working on a screenplay about sexuality - a taboo subject in Rwanda, if there ever was one.

Additional screenings of “Grey Matter”:
Saturday, 30 April at 9:30 p.m. at Clearview Chelsea Cinemas

Stay tuned for more from the 10th Annual Tribeca Film Festival http://

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