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Grey Matter: Rwanda’s First Feature Length Narrative Film

By Kate Goodman

Last week at the Tribeca Film Festival, I had the privilege of seeing the film Grey Matter (Matière Grise). Written and directed by Kivu Ruhorahoza, Grey Matter is actually the first feature length narrative film made in Rwanda by a Rwandan filmmaker. After reading the small synopsis provided by the film festival, I was still unsure of what kind of movie Grey Matter would be and what kind of story it would tell. I was pleasantly surprised to see a visually striking, incredibly thoughtful, and profound film. (Grey Matter received a Special Jury Mention at Tribeca for “for its audacious and experimental approach, this film speaks of recent horrors and genocide with great originality.” The Jury “wanted to give a special commendation to this filmmaker for his courage and vision.”) While watching the film, I kept coming back to Jacqueline’s story in The Last Survivor. “The burden of surviving,” as Jacqueline described her feelings following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and how Rwandans’ manage their burden is the heart of Grey Matter.

The film contains three separate, yet intertwining, stories each with very different main subjects. The film opens on Balthazar, a young filmmaker attempting to find funding for his newest project, but who is met with roadblocks at every turn. He tries to petition the government for a grant, but is turned down because his film focuses too much on the past. Balthazar’s government contact explains that the government would rather look forward, to positive projects like government’s new AIDS awareness programs or their efforts to combat domestic violence, instead of backwards to the genocide. Kivu Ruhorahoza explained in a Q&A after the screening that Balthazar is a representation of himself and his own struggle to get his film made. Kivu finally found financial support in an Australian production company and finished his film there.

The second vignette is Balthazar’s film, which portrays a man locked in a mental institution, simply known as “the Madman.” The Madman relives the genocide in his room, conveyed by his interactions with a literal cockroach he captured in a glass jar (cockroach was a commonly used epithet during the genocide used to dehumanize Tutsi’s). The Madman, clearly a murderer during the genocide, represents the section of the Rwandan population that was not only complacent to, but also actively took part in the genocide. Kivu uses this section of the film, through the Madman’s delusions, to illustrate what Rwanda was like leading up to and during the genocide. He hears the now infamous radio broadcasts encouraging citizens to “hunt the cockroaches” and sees hands come through his barred window to applaud his rape of the captured cockroach. (Kivu makes his position on the international communities’ role in the genocide evident when the segment ends with the first pair of white hands to come through the Madman’s window giving him the keys to his room and let him loose.)

The final and longest section of the film portrays Yvan and Justine, brother and sister Survivors, years after the genocide trying to rebuild their lives. Yvan, portrayed by Ramadhan “Shami” Bizimana who won Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film at Tribeca, suffers from intense Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, constantly wears a motorcycle helmet decorated in American paraphernalia, and cannot leave their bleak home. Justine (who Kivu explains in this interview with the director represents strong Rwandan women) holds what remains of their family together by selling herself to pay for her brother’s medical bills. In the Q&A, Kivu explained that he began writing this particular story in the immediate aftermath of the genocide as a way of dealing with his own survivor’s guilt. Sent away to stay with his ailing grandmother, Kivu was not present during the genocide while the rest of his family remained in Kigali and suffered the genocide first hand. Getting this film made and out for the world to see has been his mission ever since.

Grey Matter offers a rare narrative insight into the “burden of surviving” for multiple sectors of the Rwandan population. Kivu transformed his catharsis into a poignant representation of how genocide so deeply impacts individuals and how survivors manage to move on. During the screening, I also wondered how this film, being the first feature length fictional film from Rwanda, will impact not only the Rwandan people, but also Rwandan culture. Following the film, Kivu spoke briefly about the state of filmmaking in Rwanda today. New institutions are being formed to sponsor more filmmaking endeavours, from documentaries to short and feature length narrative film. Speaking as a huge film fanatic and someone who deeply understands how film both reflects and impacts a national culture, I hope that more films will continue to be made as Rwandans rebuild and grapple with the “burden of surviving.”

Grey Matter Trailer: