Watched Apr 16, 2012
Despite its name, the organ that Grey Matter wears on its sleeve is its heart. If you'd like to see a bleedingly heartfelt movie about young Rwandan director Kivu Ruhorahoza's view of life in his country, this won't disappoint. Still, as the title promises, the movie wants to move past melodrama into an intellectual treatment of its subject -- although, as often happens with first-time filmmakers, the line between intellectual and overthought is a scribble.
But suggesting Grey Matter is "overthought" probes our interesting relationship with foreign films. For as long as they have been considered by American audiences to essentially be their own genre, that ineffable otherness determines how we reckon them. Some process -- the way subtitles distance viewers from vocal delivery, the spot-the-difference variations in national cinemas, something -- prompts us to evaluate these movies with a different yardstick, and a preferential one at that. In many cases, narrative cinema has so many fundamental similarities that it's a reasonable exercise to ask yourself how your opinion of a given movie would change if, rather than looking at unfamiliar faces, you were looking at Viggo Mortenson and Naomi Watts. Is that imagined movie still as gripping as what you're watching, or does Hollywood-washing it reveal that the beloved foreign title is just another marital drama with too many establishing shots?
This problem is further compounded any time a movie comes freighted with cultural novelty -- a great example being The Fast Runner, heralded as (per Wikipedia) "the first feature film ever to be written, directed and acted entirely in (the Inuit language) Inuktitut." You hear that and you're compelled to see what emerges when you give an underrepresented people a budget and a camera, but then you watch and realize, duh, the filmmakers have been watching movies all their lives; you're not going to see someone discovering the reverse shot for the first time. This is a lot of provisos to build up before talking about Grey Matter, but you have to be able to see through both those shells -- not just the "foreign" shell, but also, in Grey Matter's case, the label of first feature film directed by a Rwandan in Rwanda.
This is especially tricky because, for its first reel, Grey Matter is about a filmmaker trying to make Rwanda's first feature film, and any ideas of naive art seem to go out the window when he talks about how he wants his actor to study Blue Velvet and Irreversible, and wonders whether he can use a Thom Yorke song in the score. There is some subtle narrative work going in this act -- as the director discusses his film, we're given not only cues but explanations for what's to come -- but when the character breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience by talking to a camera in the immediate foreground, it's a good time to implement the Viggo test: Would you have the patience for this in an American indie?
Without giving away too much about what follows, the movie switches out of this metafictional mode -- for a spell, it's Brechtian and polemical, and then expressionistic giving way to realistic. For the viewer, this is where both the Viggo test and "cultural novelty" comes into play -- I'm pussyfooting around comparing Grey Matter to a student film, because there are stretches of this movie that play like the summer stock version of a Com Arts thesis project, such as a character tossing a bucket of water on a TV showing a video of a fire.
But I'm not throwing shade on the movie; Ruhorahoza displays more assurance and acumen behind the camera than the term "student film" connotes, and he absolutely uses his tropes to convey a unique and obviously deeply felt experience of post-genocide Rwandan existence. When Jp Uwayezu is given a machete mid-movie while a radio voice intones about how butterflies will never emerge from the eggs of a cockroach (which is a Hutu slur for Tutsis), the mood of quiet menace is palpable; the camera caresses the blade like the actor does. In its last movement, as Natasha Muziramakenga's character risks the last of her sanity to revive the sanity of her brother, played by Ramadhan Bizimana, Grey Matters is particularly powerful, and you could imagine that germ alone expanded into a perfectly respectable feature film, but Ruhorahoza had more complicated ideas and stuck to them. The movie does not master its ambitions and cohere in the Kaufmanesque way its structure suggests, but it has ambition and takes a healthy swing, ending strongly enough to keep the favor of anyone intrigued by it.
Dane101, April 18, 2012