Still from the film Grey Matter (2011), dir. Kivu Ruhorahoza.
Between April 29 and May 5, 2020, e-flux Video & Film is screening Grey Matter, a feature film by Rwandan director Kivu Ruhorahoza, which was awarded a Jury Special Mention for Best Emerging Filmmaker at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. The film is the first installment of “École du soir: Six Films, from Rwanda and Beyond,” a program of films, video works, and interviews convened by artist Christian Nyampeta, and inaugurating Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film. To watch Grey Matter, visit here.
Below is an interview with Kivu Ruhorahoza conducted by fellow filmmaker Natacha Nsabimana. The conversation has been edited by Christian Nyampeta.
Natacha Nsabimana (NN):
The first question I have is about the end of the film, Grey Matter, when Sophie Nzayisenga plays the inanga—an instrument played in Rwanda, Burundi, and Ghana. What is the song about?
Kivu Ruborahoza (KR):
The film was shot in 2009, and I haven’t seen it in years because I hate seeing my work on screen. I can only see the weaknesses and the things I could have done better. About the song in the closing scene, there’s a proverb in Kinyarwanda: Agahinda ntikica kagira mubi which means “sorrow might not kill you, but it will disfigure you.” For quite some time, there has been a debate in trying to find the right terminology, the right Rwandan terms to name depression. For now, we call it agahinda gakabije or “extreme sorrow.”
When I commissioned the song from Sophie, I told her I wanted a song about agah inda, about how sorrow will not necessarily make you physically die, but rather how it will eat you from the inside and make you dysfunctional—or as we say in Kinyarwanda, disfigure you, make you unrecognizable. So, the song is about depression, and it builds on the proverb I mention.
And then, of course, there is a song (“Kana”) by the famous Rwandan singer Cecile Kayirebwa. I guess I’m interested in the music in the film in general. In my opinion, the rhythm of the film is in line with a certain kind of Rwandan music genre. Can you speak more about the overall choice of music in the film?
I was trying to find a sound that would suggest a mental breakdown or alienation, the parallel reality that some of the characters experience, but also sounds that are common in the settings pictured. For example, throughout the film there is the sound of a flute. In the hills and valleys, its not uncommon to hear the sound of a flute coming from a field when one is walking around in not-so-populated areas. These are the sounds I grew up with, and I wanted to have them in the film. I would hear them in the villages outside of Kigali while visiting family relatives. The flute plays in moments when—if I remember correctly, because I haven’t seen the film in a while—the film shows a certain kind of physical beauty of the landscape: the hills, the light, and the contrast and depth of the three-dimensional images that are particular to Rwanda. But then, these flutes, and these landscapes, their light and their beauty, are never far from the places that bring back the pain. In its turn, the inanga is used to introduce the film, frame a couple of scenes throughout, and then at the end.
When I said earlier that I hate seeing my films, it is because, unfortunately, I never had enough time, for example, to experiment with Sophie and try different things the way I would with a musician if we had the time and the budget. It was not possible to have any alternative takes with Sophie because, by that time, she had some gigs, she was about to start touring, and she has a family. Also, I didn’t have a budget, so I settled for that one take.
You and I have talked about this awkward dance between artists, funders, and the institution. Can you contextualize this tension within “African cinema"? What are the kinds of things that you, as a filmmaker, keep coming up against? What is expected from you as an African, Rwandan filmmaker? What is your relationship to filmmaking, or to art in general? Is your art something that has an agenda, and furthermore should you even have an agenda?
In the early 2000s, and for long after, Rwanda was insistent on putting all sectors of society to work, with the purposes of uniting and healing the divided nation. Every creative effort had to lead towards these goals. In this context, there were suspicions that came with wanting to make films that were seen as frivolous. I encountered that problem a lot, already when I was making short films back in 2007 or 2008. A lot of people told me: This is too experimental, or this is too frivolous, or this is too dark, or this is not what we need! They would ask: Where is the hopeful message at the end of the film? I’ve always tried to resist that. Some filmmaker would say: I want to make films that my grandmother understands. Which is insulting to the grandmother, as if she can’t understand highly ambitious artistic work.
What is interesting, in my opinion, is not what constitutes an African director, but rather African film. A film is a legal entity that has bank accounts open in its name. It is often a limited liability kind of company. I explored that in my latest film called Europa: “Based on A True Story”. When a film receives funding from several European countries and sometimes Canada, it often comes with conditions. For example, in some cases, 51% of the language used must be French, otherwise you lose the funding. Or the characters must be specific nationalities. Not just actors, but characters as well. Or the film must be shot in a specific place. The nationality of a film is a very interesting debate in my opinion. A Canadian can make a Canadian film in Congo. A British filmmaker can make a British film in Singapore, or a French filmmaker can make a French film in Brazil. But there is absolutely no funding, for example, for a Zimbabwean director to make a Zimbabwean film in Sweden. Actually, you are met with so much resistance. Not only is there no money in your own country, but even with the foreign money that is officially set aside for African directors, its conditions are such that the money can only be spent on this continent.
In other words, we have this geographic Africa imposed on us. We cannot take Africa with us where we go in the way that a French director can take French ideas and methods and apply them elsewhere, and those ideas remain French even if they’re being put into action and visually explored in Sri Lanka. I was trying to question that by making a film in the UK. But since there is no funding for me there, and since that film wasn’t going to be considered a Rwandan film on its own, I had to insist that it was a Rwandan film. Even if the film was set in the UK, it was made by a Rwandan filmmaker. Europe is merely in the background. I have Nigerian actors and British actors, but the concerns in the film are very Rwandan. Those concerns are at the front and center of the film. Anyway, there’s no funding for me to do a counter-anthropology in the West by making Rwandan films there. Even if I would try to overcome the issue of non-existing funding, I would still face visa issues. I might get a twelve-day visa to attend a conference and then I could take the opportunity to get some filming done… Essentially, this is the scenario: I’m just an African filmmaker, a preconceived notion of Africa is imposed on me, and with that come the themes I’m expected to explore. That Africa is solely a geographical Africa. That’s it.
What you’re saying is interesting and also crazy problematic. There is a certain view of what Africa is that is imposed on you. The assumption is that if you don’t make things that look like what that Africa looks like, then you’re not making an African film. Is that a fair summary?
There’s an expected Africa. Of course, people are always going to contest this, but there’s always an expected Africa, the same way that there’s an expected Europe. There’s an expected academia for people who don’t work in academia. There is an expected upper-middle-class life, and so on. A world that we don’t know—we are always going to have expectations of it. Even when we have interacted intellectually and culturally with that world, there’s always going to be expectations.
To that point, Grey Matter ends with Balthazar, the filmmaker, who says something about the notion of “inhabiting.” I’m translating into English from the character’s French. But his words address the lines of inhabiting porous borders between parallel realities. Can you talk about what you had in mind when you wrote that?
When I made the film, I was in the early stages of exploration of something that became quite central to my work, namely the different usages of memory, and how memory is a very unreliable concept. In the film, Balthazar’s memory is historically inaccurate. Historically memory cannot be relied on to be fully accurate—one cannot use it, for example, in a legal context. Yet it is still a memory that is different, and that is relevant. The memory of the survivor is different from the memory of the perpetrator, from that of the journalist, from that of the person who is writing a historical book, and from that of the politician who is trying to advance the work of truth and reconciliation. Memory is a very tricky concept.
In the context of the post-conflict community, after the Genocide against the Rwandan Tutsis, there is trauma and then there’s memory, then there’s that euphoria that comes at the end of such a major conflict, and then there’s the drinking, as one tries to process what happened. There are all these different levels of reality that people inhabit, sometimes for long periods of time, sometimes for short periods of time. When you are drunk, you inhabit a different kind of dimension for example. Or when your brain is using a corrective “software” to make it possible for you to live. Sometimes, you talk to a former militia member you learn that their memory plays tricks on them to make it possible for them to live with the crimes they committed. In the film, we see a mad person—whatever that means—and a person (Yvan) who is traumatized, whose reality has been completely infected with survivor’s guilt. And we see the director, obsessed with making a film. They all inhabit different realities. When there is not clear conversation between oneself and others, those realties cannot be translated. But then, those realities can also be parallel to one another. Yet there is always a need to communicate. Sometimes people jump out of the reality they’re in only to find themselves in another reality without realizing it. We have seen so many people whom seemed to be doing pretty well, despite the fact that they lost everything and everybody in their family in the genocide. But, then you lose them for two years because you traveled, and when you come back, they’ve joined another reality; now you find them in the street. Or there is somebody who used to have major responsibilities, and when you come back you find it is no longer the case. The borders between all these realities are just so porous.
Another interesting aspect of the film is how characters move in and out of each other’s’ realities, entering each other’s realms.
Certainly. I also think of the dynamics between Yvan and his sister, Justine. At first, Yvan was supposed to be looking after Justine…
Why? Because Yvan wasn’t there?
Justine is a personification of Rwandan issues. On the one hand, there were so many men who died, who were killed by other men, and on the other hand, there were many men who fled the country after killing so many people. The women who survived felt they had to feed the family, put kids back into schools, and so on. So, it was quite ironic that Justine, having gone through all of this, would then also have to take care of her brother. But, that is what happened in many cases. It was not me being sadistic. Still, I wanted Justine to have a moment where she can process her trauma, for her to have the right to be weak and to be completely shattered by what happened. Even if women had managed to create homes for their loved ones, I think it was important that they too could process the trauma, even if that required going to a mental health institution.
Sadly, a survivor could end up in the same mental health institution as the militia man, who also had severe health issues. Both these groups would be in the same hospital, the same way we are all in the same streets and the same markets and sometimes the same households.
We’ve been talking for an hour, so let me just ask one last question, about the helmet. I noticed the word “lucky” written on it. And it also had stickers of rockets. I was wondering if this was a specific choice. Does it mean something? It could be like one of those personalizing inscriptions one sees on minibuses, like “Tupac rest in peace,” or “God bless you.” But, at the same time, “lucky” could mean that the character Yvan wasn’t there during the genocide, while he is also tormented by this, feeling survivor’s guilt. The rockets could be metaphors for inhabiting different temporal realities, for a need or desire to escape the painful, earthly historical conditions. Anyhow, my mind went to so many different places. And, of course, we are in the middle of a global pandemic when everyone wears masks. So, I found the helmet very prominent as I re-watched the film yesterday. Was this helmet a specific choice? Does anything that I’m saying make sense to you?
Yeah, you are pretty close, actually. When we were making the film, I was looking for a helmet. There were loads of taxi motor driver helmets, but these were just too banal. Eventually, someone from the production team brought me three helmets, I think. That’s when I saw that specific one. I thought I was lucky to find one that had “lucky” written on it. Here’s this thing… even in post-genocide Rwanda, we are human beings and hierarchies are never far from the way we read any situation. You had survivors who had literally nothing left to the extent that they had to squat abandoned houses. They had nothing, their houses were demolished. They were very economically vulnerable to begin with, and then the genocide came and wiped away everything they had—humans and goods. And then you had others… one might say, who, having “lost everything,” still had a huge house like the one in the film, with a garden, running water, and electricity. Suddenly, the economic vulnerability was temporarily removed; this is the wider issue of having survived. You would hear about some such survivor, who was facing serious mental issues, but who would still be mocked: supposedly he was the lucky one, he had everything, as it were! In fact, there was a famous man in Kigali, who had taken to roaming the streets, and who was one of the wealthiest individuals in town, in fact. But he had lost all his family. I’m sure you know him personally as well. You know who I’m thinking about because our families were friends.
There is this notion of ari mu bicu, meaning “to be in the clouds.” You may start to speak to yourself, and you would be declared mad. But if you went mad using French or English words, you might be called a philosopher! This is of course not a compliment. Zimurekere uriya ni umufilosofe, sha. “Leave him alone, he is a philosopher,” someone might say to you. It’s no compliment, it is a mockery.
This is the figure of Yvan, who is in his own reality; he is up there. When I found a helmet with the word “lucky” and rocket ships on it, I said it was exactly what I needed. Yvan is trying to protect himself physically and emotionally, he is trying to remove himself from a reality he didn’t really experience. And so, he lives in his own helmet. There’s a proverb in Kinyarwanda: ufite agatwe gato, akarinda urugoro. “Those with a small head or who keep their heads low stay out of harm’s way.” Something like that. This is the only way he knows to protect his sanity. And this is his way of being in his sister’s shoes. So, it was that use of the helmet that I thought would be metaphorically interesting. I didn’t add those stickers, that is just how the helmet came. Unfortunately, I lost it. I was meaning to keep it in my memorabilia, for when I became rich and famous, so that I could sell it to pay for my nieces’ education.
That is still coming, that is still coming.
Kivu Ruhorahoza is a filmmaker, author, photographer, and producer based in Kigali. His feature film Grey Matter won the Jury Special Mention for Best Emerging Filmmaker at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival and the Ecumenical Jury Special Mention at the 2011 Warsaw Film Festival. His most recent film, Europa: “Based on a True Story”, is a drama about a Nigerian asylum seeker in the UK who, after his death, appears to his ex as a ghost in order to tell his story, and demand a presence that was denied him as an asylum seeker.
Natacha Nsabimana is a socio-cultural anthropologist working at the University of Chicago. Her research and teaching interests include law and subjectivity, postcolonial critique, musical movements, and the cultural and political worlds of African peoples on the continent and in the diaspora.