Story of Rwandan genocide sweeps film fests from Sundance to Atlanta

When “Kinyarwanda” scored best international film honors at last month’s BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta, it was, naturally, cause for celebration for director Alrick Brown.

But seeing his first feature film honored by the independent film industry is becoming routine.

The movie, a tense study of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, already earned accolades from Sundance, AFI Fest in Los Angeles, Skip City in Japan and the Starz Denver Film Festival before its Atlanta festival appearance.

On Dec. 2, “Kinyarwanda,” with a nudge from the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, opens at Phipps Plaza and in seven other major cities, including New York, San Francisco and Washington.

But Brown, a native Jamaican filmmaker and teacher whose pedigree includes a Master of Fine Arts from the Tisch School of the Arts in New York and two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ivory Coast, is receiving his newfound recognition humbly.

“I’m pleasantly surprised because these are prestigious places [giving the awards], but it also makes me feel like I have some work to do,” Brown said. “I’m very critical of my own stuff. I can see the flaws.”

Considering that “Kinyarwanda” was shot on site in 16 days with a budget of about $350,000 funded through grants and credit cards, Brown can be forgiven for having to crunch within his limitations to tell six interwoven and connected stories that are heart-wrenching, heartwarming and necessary to understand the depths of Rwandan culture clashes.

At one point, a producer on the film left the country with $25,000 in his pocket and traveled to three other countries before finding appropriate lighting equipment and driving it back to the set.

Brown used mostly non-actors to play a Tutsi/Hutu couple, a priest and a young boy, among the characters, and he found his stories the old-fashioned way -- by talking to people.

Executive producer Ishmael Ntihabose, a Rwandan-born filmmaker, exhaustively researched the topic, and once Brown arrived in Rwanda, they both realized there were millions of stories to be told.

“Everyone in that country had a story," Brown said. "Every time I met someone, they would have a story and I would try to corroborate their stories by listening to other people’s stories.”

Those accounts, which often came from survivors who took refuge at the Grand Mosque of Kigali and the imams who gave refuge to the Tutsis, helped “Kinyarwanda” become accepted by the Rwandan people -- a powerful feat in itself.

“This film gives them a culture, it give them life. It shows love and gives them an identity,” Brown said. “This film shows more of the future and the possibilities moving forward in that country. If you go to Rwanda now, you get invited to 15 weddings every weekend -- they’ve gone in the complete opposite direction! I had to have a dowry scene in the movie because that’s how it is there now.”

Now that “Kinyarwanda” is leaping from the festival circuit to mainstream release, Brown can concentrate on his other projects, including a sports film in development and a recent directorial job for an episode of the new ABC series “Final Witness,” which Brown filmed in Cobb County in January.

He laughs about the comparison of shooting an emotionally gutting true-to-life film in Rwanda with a TV episode in Atlanta.

“After dealing with the intensity, the politics, the history in Rwanda and trying not to offend the rebels or the government and then coming to Cobb County, well, there’s nothing I could do now as a filmmaker that could scare me,” Brown said. “[On the set of the TV show] I had producers, people getting me coffee. I was like, really, is this work? And I got paid!”

Movie preview


Starring Cassandra Freeman, Edourd Bamporiki. Directed by Alrick Brown.

Unrated. Violence. At AMC Phipps Plaza. 1 hour, 36 minutes.