“Grey Matter” is the first Rwandan feature film whose director was both born in Rwanda and is still living there. This is significant because when trying to grapple cinematically with an event as incomprehensible as genocide, who gets to tell the story makes all the difference in the world.
Director Kivu Ruhorahoza’s semi-autobiographical film follows a young director named Balthazar who is trying desperately to bring his film, “The Cycle of the Cockroach,” to fruition. Everyone he asks for funding turns him down; the government wants him to produce public-service announcements about HIV instead. Rather than telling his production team that the film has no funding, he decides to proceed as though everything’s in place. From that point on “Grey Matter” becomes a dreamlike vision of Balthazar’s film, which tells the story of a brother and sister whose family was murdered during the genocide. Eventually, the sister is institutionalized in the same facility as a man who has gone crazy from the atrocities he committed, the victim and the perpetrator becoming indistinguishable.
The performances are very emotional, and though the story fragments and rebuilds itself repeatedly, making it hard to follow, the overall effect is quite profound. The two characters are complex and well developed, both grappling in very different ways with the aftereffects of immense and indescribable trauma. “Grey Matter’s” film-within-a-film structure gives this narrative an interesting aspect of meta-commentary: we’re reminded at the end that the siblings’ story is being constructed by a real Rwandan (even if, like Ruhorahoza, he wasn’t witness to the genocide himself). In turn, the fact that Ruhorahoza is also a true Rwandan gives this rhetorical structure even more significance.
Most Americans know about the events of 1994 because of the Don Cheadle film “Hotel Rwanda” (2004). “Grey Matter” could not be a more different type of film; far from aspiring to be a romanticized Hollywood version of events, Ruhorahoza’s film is semantically closer to the early works of Ousmane Sembene, often referred to as the father of post-colonial African cinema. Much like Sembene’s seminal “Black Girl” (1969), “Grey Matter” borrows much of its visual language from the innovators of the French New Wave—which is to say that it can be, at times, difficult to sit through. If you’re not used to 90-minute films shot in real time, make sure you’ve had a lot of coffee before sitting down with “Grey Matter.” (In fact, no less than three critics fell asleep during the press screening I attended.)
That being said, “Grey Matter” is, in its own way, an amazing film. It won a Special Jury Mention in the Best New Narrative Director category at Tribeca this year, and its star, Ramadhan “Shami” Bizimana, was named Best Actor in a Narrative Feature. As long as you can resign yourself to a storyline that isn’t totally linear and predictable, you will get a lot out of seeing this film.