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Filmmaker’s Path to Sundance Success Led Through Rwanda

Alrick Brown’s award-winning debut, Kinyarwanda, highlights the global vision of a new generation of African-American filmmakers.

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.

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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.

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“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.

About the author

Rob Salkowitz is author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture (McGraw-Hill, 2012), Young World Rising (2010), and two other books on youth and digital media as agents of change. He is Director of Strategy at MediaPlant, LLC, a Seattle-based communications firm he co-founded in 1999.

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