A deeply personal story of the repercussions of the Rwandan genocide has an Australian connection.
3 May 2011 - 4:40 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Kivu Ruhorahoza has been awarded a 2011 Tribeca Film Festival Special Jury Mention for his debut feature, Grey Matter, an illusory film whose narrative reflects the director's own efforts to finance a film about the lingering impact of the Rwandan genocide.

Grey Matter is the first narrative feature-length film directed by a Rwandan living in his homeland. It is a Rwanda/Australia co-production between Ruhorahoza (pictured) and Melbourne producer Dominic Allen of Scarab Productions.

The collaboration was consolidated through a meeting of Ruhorahoza and Australian cinematographer Ari Weger at the Berlinale Talent Campus in 2009. In October of the same year, Allen came onboard and brought vital equipment from Australia, including a Red Camera and film lenses, to shoot the film. Grey Matter was eventually mastered in Melbourne and completed just days before its world premiere at Tribeca.

In all aspects, Grey Matter is a highly personal story. The ideas originated from notes that Kivu Ruhorahoza started writing as a child; he was just 11 when the genocide in Rwanda was perpetrated. “I was in the other side of the country, in the Western Province, visiting my grandmother who was ill,” recalls Ruhorahoza. “I wasn't with my family. In the first few weeks of the genocide I could talk with them on the telephone. It was the first time I heard my siblings with panicked voices and it never left my head. At some point, I heard they had been killed. Luckily, it wasn't true. Someone had spread the rumour so that the militia would stop looking for them. After the genocide, I went back to Kigali, but I was never able to talk to them. They had experienced something horrible.”

The director also experienced a sense of guilt. “My family survived but many of my friends and neighbours didn't. I kept seeing around me all these young people my age who had lost everything. The more I grew, the more I understood that what happened to my country and the people I loved, came from somewhere.”

Grey Matter is the filmmaker's response to this national tragedy and its residual after-effects. He admits that he struggled with aspects of the script when it was two-thirds complete.

“I kept asking myself why I was struggling with the film. I realised …that I needed to make it and move on,” Ruhorahoza says. After this realisation he wrote the last of Grey Matter's three segments, which ultimately formed the basis of the narrative: the self-referential story of a Rwandan filmmaker struggling to get finance for his debut feature film, The Cycle of the Cockroach. According to Ruhorahoza, when he wrote the character of filmmaker Balthazar, it all fell into place. “It all made sense,” he says. “I had a feature.”

The narrative of the Balthazar character's film, The Cycle of the Cockroach, follows two siblings who have survived the Rwandan atrocities. The Tribeca jury recognised Ramadhan "Shami" Bizimana with the Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film Award for his portrayal of one of the siblings, Yvan, who is haunted by vivid visions of death and suffering. He shuts himself off, masked and isolated, while his stoic sister, Justine (Ruth Nirere), does what she can to keep their small family afloat.

Ruhorahoza's own struggles in getting the film made are reflected in his fictionalised account of Balthazar's run-ins with government officials; they insist that he write a 'message' film about gender-based violence or HIV. In Ruhorahoza's experience, for example, a grant fell through the day before principle photography began but he didn't say a word and began filming without the funding. On many occasions the director pawned his laptop and was forced to borrow money to retrieve it. These behind-the-scene filmmaking experiences inform the mis-en-scène and dialogue of Grey Matter.

“I didn't know how it would be possible for me to make the film,” says Ruhorahoza now. “If you look at [Balthazar's] bookshelf, you see a Don Quixote book there. When I wrote the script I was thinking about Terry Gillian trying to make Don Quixote and failing.” Early scenes also reference David Lynch and I ask Ruhorahoza about Lynch's influence on the film. The director cites his popularisation of parallel worlds in cinema. “How do you trust your brain? We're such fragile animals and we're so subjective to our brain. A traumatic experience can turn your life upside down. No one does [that] better than David Lynch.”

The meta-narrative of Balthazar's The Cycle of the Cockroach, contextualises both the siblings' stories, and an additional narrative about a man driven mad by his own involvement in the genocide. Both are representations of trauma and memory. In Grey Matter, there is an absurdist element to these stories, a surrealism that stems from reality. Yvan wearing a helmet while he is eating cooked avocado, praying and painting, or throwing water on bodies that only he can see are all experiences gleaned from real life. Filming these sections was an emotional experience for the director and cast. “Every scene in that part of the film I connected to something personal or had seen friends experience,” Ruhorahoza says. “All my actors have had traumatic experiences of genocide. The actor who played the madman lost his parents and siblings.” The director used specific examples to evoke reactions from his actors. “ So many times I gave them clear references of things they know or even experienced themselves,” he says.

Ruhorahoza has not yet screened Grey Matter in Rwanda and hopes to show the film at the Rwanda Film Festival, organised by the Rwanda Cinema Centre. Ruhorahoza is keen to see what emerges from the screening of film in his home country. “I think people will understand the film,” he says. “After the genocide we didn't have professional help to deal with the aftermath, we didn't have doctors, we didn't have psychiatrist services. When your community is destroyed who do you talk to? How do you move on? I don't think you can. All you can try is to be a little bit normal, although I don't know what normal is.”