Book review – The art of falling apart

2012-09-08 09:34

Rwandan filmmaker Kivu Ruhorahoza has just finished his first novel. Don’t expect a light read, writes Charl Blignaut

Kivu Ruhorahoza lights up perceptibly whenever the conversation turns to books.

In his trademark blue jeans and white collared shirt, his eyes begin twinkling, his hands animate the air. I ask where his love of literature comes from.

“I was 12. It was just after the genocide in 1994 and the houses were looted for electronics and stuff. Our mother told us we will not go in and take anything, that’s stealing. But my brother saw two boxes of books on the pavement in a nice area and he took them. They were the best of French literature, the classics: Voltaire, Diderot and so on. I didn’t understand them, but I kept reading.”

Once again, the conversation has brought us back to the 1994 tragedy.

But just because the 29-year-old writer and filmmaker is from Rwanda doesn’t mean he makes work about the genocide.

It’s a cliché that exasperates him when he’s travelling with his films. “I could make a sports movie or a porno and people would somehow manage to bring it back to the genocide,” he says with a smile.

His first short film to pick up awards was about a repentant rapist. The next was about a middle-class couple after a Halloween party. His first novel is about a misunderstood artist. His next feature film is about a gay man and Christian fundamentalists in Kenya.

He doesn’t identify himself as gay, but believes Africans must address the issue to counter the myth that homosexuality is imported from the West.

But here’s the thing – the past is never where you think you left it. Post-traumatic tension haunts Ruhorazora’s work.

He was an 11-year-old boy visiting his grandmother in a rural village when Kigali became a warzone. Rumours that his family had been killed surfaced, and for weeks he believed he was an orphan. But those rumours were spread by the people hiding his family.

His acclaimed debut feature, Grey Matter, starts off as an experimental film about a filmmaker trying to make a film, and becomes a shattering narrative about Yvan and his sister who are orphaned in a large, empty middle-class Kigali home after an event
of political violence.

Yvan is unable to work through the trauma. At one point in Ruhorazora’s impeccably stylish film, the character places a motorbike helmet over his head and refuses to take it off. It’s the cheapest Afro-futurist special effect I’ve ever seen in a movie.

His sister tries to get him to work through his grief. She gives sexual favours to a psychiatrist to get him treatment. But there’s a twist: Yvan was studying abroad when their parents were slaughtered, so his survivor guilt manifests more intensely than her pain as a witness.

Ruhorahoza says the violence in his film could just as well be the conflict in Mali, xenophobia in South Africa or gay murder in Uganda.

“In Rwanda the whole population needed therapy, but at some point in the country we had only one qualified psychiatrist, only one!

“That’s why I say my generation is f****d up and we just have to admit that and try to be civil and tolerant, even if we don’t like each other. In three generations, maybe we can talk about reconciliation.”

Mental health and the psychology of social misfits is what informs Ruhorazora’s strong and sinewy work.

He’s late for our interview and eventually I find him tucked in a corner of a hotel lounge, earphones in, tapping at his laptop. He was editing his novel, Lost in the South, due to be sent to his publisher in France this month.

“It’s about a Rwandan artist who goes through a depression but doesn’t understand it. He lives in a society that doesn’t take depression seriously. He makes more and more money and becomes more and more depressed and has meaningless sex every night,” he says.

The artist travels overseas, as does Ruhorazora. Increasingly, the world is opening up to him because of his particular and haunting films. He hopes his novel will also open doors.

He admits he’s a hugely ill-disciplined writer who works best in the middle of the night or when feeling reckless. It’s a good thing, then, that his greatest muse is being in transit. “I write perfectly on planes, drinking those cheap wines,” he chuckles.

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