Filmmaker's Path to Sundance Success Led Through Rwanda

Writer/Director Alrick Brown took the long way on his journey from Plainfield, New Jersey to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. He took a detour through the East African nation of Rwanda. The success of his award-winning feature-film debut Kinyarwanda highlights the bright future and broad global vision of a rising generation of independent filmmakers.

Kinyarwanda, which won the audience choice award for World Cinema on Saturday evening, revisits the events of the 1994 genocide and considers the question of how a society that shed so much of its own blood could ever find forgiveness. The title refers to the language spoken by both the Hutu and Tutsi peoples of Rwanda, whose common tongue could not prevent the divisions between them that led to atrocity.

Not content to challenge the audience with such morally complex material, Brown challenged himself and his production team to create the film on location in the impoverished East African nation, where the wounds remain fresh and the infrastructure for film-making is rudimentary at best. For sixteen days in late 2009, the American-led team scrambled to capture Kinyarwanda's complex and intricately-structured script on film amid all manner of logistical, cultural and language barriers, and under extremely tight budget constraints. Brown and his production team chose to film in the country because they felt it was essential to capture the true atmosphere of what went on.

Brown described the experience of directing Rwandans to reenact the darkest moments of their history as "poignant." American actress Cassandra Freeman plays Lieutenant Rose, an army officer who helped lead the armed struggle to end the genocide, but most of the rest of the cast and crew are Rwandan. They had lived through the genocide and were still dealing with their own experiences of the tragedy. Brown incorporated some of the personal anecdotes he heard during preproduction into the final script. He said it was sometimes necessary to break between scenes to allow everyone involved to recompose themselves emotionally.

The authenticity shines through in the performance and the production, separating it from more fictionalized Hollywood accounts of the Rwandan story such as 2004's Hotel Rwanda. "I wanted to give an accurate account of the history through personal stories," said Brown. "The Rwandan people very much encouraged me to take that approach."

The initial impetus for Kinyarwanda came from Rwandan-born executive producer Ishmael Ntihabose, who wanted to tell the story of how the country's Muslim leaders stood up against tribal hatreds and made the country's mosques sanctuaries for persecuted Tutsis. Ntihabose and co-producer Joshua Rodd received a grant from the European Commission to craft a short film around the events of the genocide.

Rodd had served with Brown, a graduate of the NYU film school, in the Peace Corps and invited him to join the project as writer and director. Brown wove the story of the relationship between an Imam and a priest into a larger tapestry that brought the reality of the genocide home through the eyes of ordinary people—families, teenagers, soldiers, clergy, persecutors and victims alike. The production team expanded the scope to a full-length feature by removing some of the more expensive and ambitious action scenes.

"Alrick made the film bigger by making it smaller," explained producer Tommy Oliver.

Producers Oliver, Daren Dean, and Co-Producer Deatra Harris pulled the production together on budget of about $500,000. Post-production dragged on through 2010 as the team canvassed for grants and funding. In December, they learned that they had been selected for Sundance and rushed to put the finishing touches on their final cut.

Their work paid off. The Sundance screenings played to packed houses, generating considerable buzz and featuring prominently in discussions that called this year's Sundance one of the strongest ever, especially for a new generation of African-American filmmakers. Kinyarwanda finished the festival with the highest audience score of any film screened, and took home the audience choice award in the World Cinema category. Oliver says they are doing screenings for potential distributors in the coming weeks and hope to have a deal in place to bring the film to world audiences soon.

Rob Salkowitz is author of Young World Rising: How Youth, Technology and Entrepreneurship are Changing the World from the Bottom Up (Wiley, 2010) and writes about business and innovation in emerging economies. Follow him on Twitter @robsalk.

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