KINYARWANDA was honored with the AFI FEST World Cinema Audience Award; it will be opening theatrically December 2.
By Joey Ally
En route to meet Alrick Brown at the Roosevelt Hotel on a recent uncommonly blustery yet stereotypically sunny L.A. Sunday, I attempted to prepare myself for what would undoubtedly be a very serious conversation. Brown directed this year’s KINYARWANDA, the first Rwandan produced film on the 1994 genocide. Between that, his masters in education, his Peace Corps years in Côte d’Ivoire, the sociopolitical tone of much the rest of his filmic canon, and his NYU film grad pedigree—all by the age of 35—I figured he had to be one intense dude. Which he was. Only, not in the way I would have expected.
The man I met in Hollywood was formal neither in dress nor in any other way; he was a good-looking guy donning duds indicative of a New York fall—newsboy cap, oversized scarf, jeans—and it was immediately evident that, like his getup, this guy was effortless style with no frills. Similarly, any fear over interviewing an “artiste” was quickly dispelled—Brown is an artist, to be sure, but he’s an artist who proclaims on his own website, “There is a place where we can still dream…My porch is where my peoples and I chill, plan, and dream of the future. What is said on the porch ultimately becomes reality. It’s not magic, we just make it happen.” And, in his case, all metaphorical conceptual blahblahblah pretension aside, he really is talking about a porch—his mom’s porch—in Plainfield, New Jersey.
After sitting down and swapping the typical hodgepodge of prerecording pleasantries, Brown asked me, What is your dream? The question was so casual, so easy, so sincere, so direct—typically, I’d be flabbergasted into relative incoherence at receiving such a question from a filmmaker whose work I respect so immensely, but answering seemed perfectly natural—even after the three minutes or less we had known each other at this point, it already felt like we might as well be old friends chatting over coffee. In that moment, I received insight into exactly how an entirely Rwandan production team was able to trust this American outsider with their stories.
This was Brown’s most winning quality throughout the interview: his respect for human life on a macro level, writing and directing films that seek to change the world, trickles down into his behavior toward human beings on a micro level. On that Sunday, in a city notorious for ever-increasing fakery, the depth of Brown’s character shone through. (Incidentally, we laughed a bit sadly as the irony kicked in that we were sitting discussing African genocide in an interview suite with floor to ceiling windows facing Madame Tussauds). This is a man who believes in art, and believes in people, and believes in art as an agent of and for the people. Brown is the real deal.
Because Brown is only serious, only intense, about one thing: in his words, “the work.” He should be maddening—this guy decided one day to go to film school and was studying with Spike Lee one year later; his fervor for philanthropic artistry is so great that without his miraculously laid-back temperament he would surely topple over into sermonizing—and yet he’s stunningly likeable. I’m no less jaded and cynical than the next guy, but something about Brown strikes as unnervingly authentic—even as he’s discussing the moment he knew he wanted to be a filmmaker while sitting on a rock on a beach, or his coming from a “Hitchcock school of filmmaking,” or purporting that the Academy Award isn’t the ultimate goal (gasp!).
Initially allotted 20 minutes for the interview, Brown pushed commitments around to give us more time—he wanted to make sure I was able to get my story; 45 recorded minutes later, as I shook his hand in awe of all that had been communicated, all I could think was: this guy has devoted his entire life to helping other people with their stories, now he deserves to share his. Here is some of that story.
J.A.: The story of KINYARWANDA is by a Rwandan man, Ishmael Ntihabose. Can you tell me how you came to be linked up?
A.B..: When I went to NYU, one of my Peace Corps colleagues, Josh, ended up eventually working in Rwanda, and Ishmael was an aspiring filmmaker and genocide survivor. Josh hooked us up through email, said, “Ishmael if you want to know about filmmaking, this is the guy you need to talk to.”…I’m a filmmaker helper so I wanted to help. So I said, “Y’know, whatever you need I’ll help you out with.”… Eventually I ended up going to Rwanda to help him make this story.
J.A.: The intriguing aspect of what you’ve done here, is you’ve made a film about genocide with the people who suffered that genocide.
A.B.: This was a land woven of stories, and all I had to do was respect that. To tell a story that’s this crazy or tragic or this encompassing it’s actually better to focus on these individual characters and these people from their perspective. That’s probably a more truthful representation of any tragedy, as opposed to seeing one side versus the other in political accusation… I picked six stories and I started writing…. there was Lt. Rose, who was the president’s advisor at the time when I was in the country, and I sat with her to talk about her experiences. She helped end the war, y’know, she was one of the soldiers. And so that character is based on her, but the line that I took from her directly when I met her, she told me that when she went to Uganda and she came back her son didn’t recognize her. The moment she told me that I wrote it into the script.
J.A.: How did the screenplay actually come to exist? And, considering the production was almost entirely Rwandan, were there any rehearsal or mid-shooting edits made in collaboration with the cast and crew?
A.B.: My training taught me that the script is the bible, I’m a slave to the script, so I got it right on paper before we started shooting. We didn’t have any rehearsals, really. If I met you, the audition was the rehearsal, and then we got on set and we did it again… And my Assistant Director, he had never A.D.’d before, but he was a soldier in the war so I said, “you be my A.D.” So there’s an accuracy and a truth to that entire process.
J.A.: The film is almost stunningly non-violent for a film of this ilk—was that something you chose to do because of who you were doing the film for, or was that something that just came out through the writing and telling of the stories.
A.B.: I don’t believe that you change those situations by showing bodies and statistics. I believe that wars end and genocides are prevented when people are humanized…when one drop of blood is valuable, when one life is valuable, when you know the names of the people, when you see them as mothers, as sisters, as sons, as cousins, as uncles, and you laugh or they turn you on or they look sexy or they smile—that’s when it’s harder to drop a bomb or to swing an ax or a machete or… And I’m from a Hitchcock school of filmmaking…I think the psychology of violence is much more terrifying than actually showing it sometimes.
J.A.: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that there are a few different moments that you recall when you knew you wanted to be a filmmaker, one of which was at the slave castles of Elmina in Ghana. Can you talk a bit about why that experience was so transformative?
A.B.: I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the slave castles…these are where the slaves were housed for like 90 days before they got on the ships to go to the Americas. [A lengthy, horrifying description of sub-human dungeon conditions follows.] It’s a traumatic place, there’s a lot of stuff there… I was walking along a beach going to the next village, I kind of got lost, I started thinking about my life, I started thinking what if I died right now and nobody found me, and I was talking into this little tape recorder leaving a message to my mother and I just asked myself simply if I died doing something in this world what would it be. And I calculated everything I had done: the places I had lived, the languages I’d spoken, the things I wanted to do in this world, being a teacher, everything. And honestly, I sat on a rock, and film was the answer.
And it’s just like one of those things where you say it and everything made sense, every single thing I love about storytelling, wanting a bigger classroom—which is what a screen is for me…having an impact on people, knowing how to speak to people in a way that other people can’t. I know what I’m capable of; it was calculating all of that and then that moment I said “film school” and that was it. And I eventually found my way to the village I was going to and I got back to my country, which is Ivory Coast, and I started applying to film school. I had never made a film before.
J.A.: Well, I’m flabbergasted, so I’m going to go right back to the questions. The common thread between your films seems to be a focus on outsiders, largely immigrants, and it is interesting that you began your life as something similar—when did you come from Jamaica to New Jersey and do you feel that making that transition had an effect on the kind of storytelling you want to do?
A.B.: I came to the United States when I was five years old, and I think much more than being an immigrant it was the outsider thing or the underdog. We moved into a black neighborhood, and I remember being ridiculed and made fun of a lot for being dark skinned—it was before being dark skinned was cool—and being Jamaican was a no-no, and I would deny where I was from. African Americans are not used to a black person being so confident: they were taught to hate themselves, to hate their own skin color. White people were taught to fear me. I took karate classes and found a lot of racism around the Korean community that I was in when I was doing martial arts.
And I just started understanding why people are angry, where the hate comes from, and, so as a writer, as a humanist, as a human being, every time I look at a story, I try to understand people and not impose my beliefs on them, and respect where they’re coming from, whether it’s wrong or not. So I have always sided with the underdog. And I don’t know, maybe it’s my mother, it’s being the Jamaican immigrant, maybe it’s because I lost my father at a young age, I’m not sure.
Q: How old were you when your father died?
A.B.: I was four and he was killed; he was shot and killed in Jamaica. So, I know I’m not here to do the work that other filmmakers do, I was given a chance to be here to do something special and I’m not going to waste it. And I know that. I knew it from a young age. It just so happens that film is the medium. When I sat on that rock I knew I had a responsibility to the world.
J.A.: So from that rock, to now, sitting across from Madame Tussauds, having won the Audience Award at Sundance, having been featured in the IFC documentary FILM SCHOOL, having picked up a number of accolades for other films—how do you feel?
A.B.: I don’t covet awards or accolades. There’s so much work to be done. There’s a story that was conceived in those slave castles that I want to tell. No matter how much I approve of myself, the way Hollywood works it says, “You can’t tell that story, you’re not good enough yet, you’re not seasoned enough yet,” and I have to get to a point where I can tell that story.
I think there’s a saying that the minute that you convince yourself that you’re successful you lose your success. I’m broke, I live in my mother’s basement, I don’t go out, I wish somebody would pay me to write. I want to just write my next project. The hustle continues. Whatever glamour people see on the surface, my pocket is still empty and I go to an interview and they drop me off in a limo and I’m standing on the street corner like, “Okay, what am I gonna eat?”
Sundance, festivals, it’s a game. Your film gets into a festival, it doesn’t make it good. And just cause it doesn’t get in doesn’t make it bad. I don’t covet, I don’t look back; my mission is the next project I have to make because that project is gonna change somebody’s life and that’s what I’m trying to get to. Every project I’ve done, I’ve done with the mentality that: would I be proud leaving this behind if I died the next day? And I am.
J.A.: That’s a pretty weighty question to be putting on yourself every single second of every project that you’re doing…
A.B.: It is, but it’s not, in a weird way. It’s balance…like, it’s a movie. So it has to be weighty, and it has to be significant, but it’s still only a movie, so…relax. Y’know, like Bruce Lee? [Here, Brown holds his right arm at length, looking out the window just past his pointed index finger, then at his finger.] Look at the moon, but don’t forget the finger in front of your face, and look at the finger in front of your face but don’t forget the moon.
J.A.: What’s next? What should we be excited about?
I just finished directing a new television show for ABC called FINAL WITNESS that’s gonna be out in January which is pretty cool—primetime TV. That was the first time I’ve ever been paid to direct, and that meant a lot. Unfortunately that money all went to making sure I got all the rights and the licensing to release KINYARWANDA December 2, but that’s an awesome thing.
Y’know, filmmakers get all hyped up about film festivals and theatrical releases, but in truth, with primetime television, your work reaches millions of people. And I was fortunate with that series that the producers and the people involved are looking for artists, and they were working like artists, and they’re looking for craft and real storytelling, so the series looks amazing. The visuals, the cinematography, the style, the storytelling—it’s unlike anything I’ve seen on television, particularly network. So it’s gonna be a cool show.
But that leads me to this theatrical release. We have a limited release with a firm, the African American Film Releasing Movement on December 2, and in Los Angeles we’re going to be at Laemmle, and, for a little film like this that we started in Rwanda through emails…to have the chance for people to be able to go into a movie theatre to see this, to see my cast and crew who had never acted before…
J.A.: I read the update on your website, where by the way, I loved the banner at the top, the whole porch metaphor, “this is a place where we can still dream,” I mean, did you have a porch growing up, or is that something that you just…?
A.B.: No it’s my porch in Plainfield, my mom’s basement where I crash, that’s where all my boys used to come and hang and that’s where I did all my dreaming. My porch.
J.A.: KINYARWANDA played at the 34th Street Theatre in Manhattan, which I know is a big theater and one in the city you’ve lived in—what was that like?
A.B.: It was magical, because a lot of people from my hometown came to that theater to see it. I mean, as a kid you sat in those theaters and you watched these big movies, and then to sit back in the dark and to think that these people in here are now watching a movie that I made…I think that’s why I need to be in a relationship at some point, because after something like that who do you share that with? Y’know, you go home and you go “look at what I just did, what I just went through.” And it’s maybe one of those things where it’s not going to make sense until I look back.
I don’t know if it’s going to get better than this. Like, the newness of it all. I don’t know if it’s going to get better than this…playing 34th Street Theatre, playing at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre right now. I just stepped on Bruce Lee’s star and my movie’s playing right inside there and he walked on these streets, and Hitchcock walked these streets, and I’m playing this theatre?
J.A.: What is your favorite Hitchcock film?
A.B. I’d have to say NORTH BY NORTHWEST. My high school English teacher, Mr. Richard Weigel, introduced me to that film—white teacher, black and latino students who don’t want to see old time movies—and he made us watch the film in 10th grade maybe…and I was blown away. Hitchcock became a recurring thing in my life. I think it was one of the seeds that was planted early on about what I was gonna do with my life.
J.A.: What is it about Hitchcock’s films that intrigues you so deeply? Or what aspects do you try to emulate as a director yourself?
A.B.: The moment I sat down to watch NORTH BY NORTHWEST to the very last frame, I was riveted. And if I take anything away, it’s that when I try to make a film; whether I’m talking about police brutality or the Rwandan genocide, I want the audience to sit there and go on a journey and be completely riveted moment to moment, scene to scene, shot to shot, I don’t want anyone to want to get up or text or go to the bathroom, I want you to stay engaged in it.
I took a writing seminar that Tony Gilroy did at NYU—Tony’s the write of BOURNE SUPREMACY and BOURNE IDENTITY, I love him—and in one session he changed my whole idea of screenwriting. But one of the things he said in that class is his greatest fear is losing the audience’s attention for one second. And I think that’s a part of my fear, too. What Hitchcock did is he brought us into this world of common, regular people going through extraordinary circumstances. And he did it without violence, without cursing, without a lot of the shock value.
J.A.: Without the gimmicks.
A.B.: I have mad respect for that dude, man. And I love the fact that he never got an Academy Award for directing. I love it. I mean, so many actors and talents who—I’ll ask them, “What’s your dream?” And they’ll tell me they want an Academy Award. They don’t talk about the work. They want the Award, right? And I love people like Hitchcock. It sucks that he didn’t get it, but it’s like, he’s one of the greatest directors that ever lived. And if he didn’t get it, it’s okay if I never get any of those awards. I’ll be fine, as long as I go down in history as having told strong and beautiful stories.
J.A.: I was so intrigued by Edouard Bamporiki’s performance in KINYARWANDA, by the fact that he plays one of the aggressors of the genocide in a way that is still so human and three dimensional, and I know that he’s also a filmmaker, poet, etc. How did you find him and what was that relationship like?
A.B.: Edouard was a gem. So I went to meet with this group of guys at Almond Tree Films, Isaac [Lee Isaac Chung, Writer/Director of MUNRUYANGABO, in which Edouard acted] helped these guys start Almond Tree. I went to them to do our ‘behind the scenes’ video. And as I was sitting in the living room and talking to them I met Edouard and I saw his personality and I said, “Dude, you should be in my movie.” And he said okay.
And I had written that role on the page, but Edouard brought a lot to it. He’s a Hutu, and by the way those terms are not used in Rwandan day-to-day life anymore, they call themselves Rwandan, but for the purpose of accuracy he was a Hutu. He was 11-years-old during the genocide and sick in a hospital where over 50,000 people were killed. Including his school teacher, who happened to be Tutsi.
So he came to this character with the weight and the responsibility of all of those killings and killers, but he’s devoted his entire life to peace and prosperity and writing books about the shame and the guilt. Because he saw those guys, and the energy that they brought when they were killing, and the power they felt when they had that kind of control, when they were holding their machetes, and y’know…we were on the same page, and it was a pleasure. And he’s just brilliant, he’s a brilliant actor and a brilliant human being.
J.A.: It’s stunning to realize that this was the first entirely Rwandan-produced feature-length film ever. What are your feelings about the future of Rwandan film? Do you think that a seed has been planted?
A.B.: Yeah, I mean the seed was not planted by me. It was planted by Isaac and even by HOTEL RWANDA and all those…and Rwandans didn’t particularly like some of the politics in that film, so they started picking up cameras to tell their own story. Like I said, it’s a land of stories. So, the seed was planted as soon as they saw that film was a viable medium, and it’s gonna continue, I think they—like Nigeria before them, and all these African countries—see that film is a way of telling their stories, and of empowerment, and also of entertainment. And it’s gonna happen. There’s a few film schools, a few exchange programs, people are building rental houses, so there’s a lot happening there now. And the digital age has turned it into something. And I think after the genocide so many people were running to Rwanda—Americans and Europeans—and Rwandans kind of latched on and saw it and said, “Why don’t we tell our own? We’ve got all these people coming in to tell our stories. Why don’t we tell our own?”
Joey Ally is a writer and actor who comes from New York City, lives in Silver Lake, and has driven cross-country three times in the past year-and-a-half. Joey was Jesse Pinkman for Halloween, and can be found on twitter at @joellenally.