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Filmmaker Alrick Brown talks about his new film, “Kinyarwanda,” and winning a prestigious award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Kam Williams
Filmmaker Alrick Brown talks about his new film, “Kinyarwanda,” and winning a prestigious award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Alrick Brown is a returned Peace Corps volunteer who has found his calling in filmmaking and writing. (Photo: Alrick Brown)

Filmmaker Alrick Brown talks about his new film, “Kinyarwanda,” and winning a prestigious award at the Sundance Film Festival.

With an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Alrick Brown is a filmmaker and teacher who has found his calling in writing, directing and producing narrative films and documentaries focusing on social issues affecting the world at large.

For over two years, he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Côte d’Ivoire.

Brown’s interactions with the indigenous people in the village where he lived, as well as his overall experiences in West Africa, have informed his creative expression, an expression first fostered by his birth in Kingston, Jamaica, and his upbringing in Plainfield, N. J. Fluent in French, he graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in education.

Since then, he has devoted his energy giving a voice to the voiceless. Brown’s collective work has been screened in countless film festivals, and received numerous awards, including HBO’s Life through Your Lens Emerging Filmmaker Award for the critically-acclaimed documentary Death of Two Sons.

In 2004 he was one of four NYU students featured in the IFC Documentary series Film School, produced by Academy Award-nominee Nannette Burstein. And in 2007, he addressed the Motion Picture Association of America on C-SPAN.

Well, it certainly looks like things have taken off for you since “Kinyarwanda” won the Audience Award at Sundance. How does that feel?

It’s all an illusion. I’m still broke, man. I’ll answer that question when I get out of debt.  

When did you get your degree from NYU?

I officially graduated in 2008, when I turned in my thesis.

Well, I really enjoyed “Kinyarwanda.” What inspired you to make a movie about the genocide in Rwanda?

Thank you very much. The film came about because one of my Peace Corps buddies ended up in Rwanda after I left West Africa to go to NYU. He introduced me to Ishmael Ntihabose, a genocide survivor and aspiring filmmaker.

Ishmael called me because he got a grant to make a movie about the Muslim influence on the peace process in Rwanda, which I hadn’t heard about before. So, he’s the picture’s executive producer.

Then, when I arrived in Rwanda, I heard so many amazing stories of survival that I suggested to Ishmael the idea of an ensemble drama with intertwining tales, à la Crash, but with all the characters eventually meeting at a mosque. He went for it, and we shot it in 16 days.

Had many of your cast members have been touched by the genocide?

Absolutely! Most of our crew and cast members were affected by it in some way. That added to the picture’s authenticity.

What’s Rwanda like now? Is there still evidence of tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis?

The country has turned itself around 180 degrees. In fact, the terms “Hutus” and “Tutsis” aren’t even used anymore. That’s not to say everything is perfect. Outside of Rwanda, there are still some people in exile who don’t believe in the reconciliation process who still hold animosities.   

I was surprised to learn from the movie that there are also Pygmies in Rwanda. What percentage of the population is comprised of the Twa people?

Only around percentage or so. The Hutus were around 85 percent, and the Tutsis around 12 percent. And the number of Muslims in the country has increased from 8 to 12 percent.  

Why so?

Many people converted to Islam after seeing the good things the Muslims did during the conflict, because they felt that the church had let them down.

Did Rwanda hold truth and reconciliation hearings like they did in South Africa after Apartheid?

Yes, they had truth and reconciliation hearings, as well as re-education programs for the perpetrators. And the country implemented a new vision of itself via songs of unity and forgiveness.

I was surprised to see guns in the movie. I thought all the killing had been done with machetes.

No, soldiers and a lot of the more powerful guerilla leaders had guns, although most of the common people wielded machetes.  

How did you figure out a way to humanize so many characters, especially in a story unfolding in the midst of a massacre?

I know a very personal Africa, that isn’t National Geographic. So, as a filmmaker, I was determined to show the truth that I know that we rarely get to see. I knew that my foundation was going to be the intimacy of people’s lives.

What made you want to join the Peace Corps and venture to Africa in the first place?

Believe it or not, I saw an episode of “The X-Files” in which they found a UFO that had landed in the Ivory Coast. I saw that as a sign. And I also wanted an opportunity to travel and see the world.

Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?

Yeah, how much money do you need for your next film? [Laughs]

How much do you need?

Probably about $3 million. Hopefully, “Kinyarwanda” will show people what I’m capable of doing on a small budget.

Are you ever afraid?

I don’t think I’m ever afraid, but I doubt myself often. Because of that doubt, I constantly strive to make myself better.

Are you happy?

That’s a good question, Kam. I’m proud, but I’m not happy, because the debt is stifling, the work is intense, I miss my family tremendously and I don’t have anyone to share this journey with. Sometimes, I feel very alone.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

[Laughs] I have a lot of those, man. Sex … Haagen Dazs strawberry ice cream … people watching … and writing a good scene. I can stay high for weeks after writing something that I love.

What was the last book you read?

The Manning Marable biography of Malcolm X.

What was the last song you heard?  

A song called “The Waitress” by a folksinger named Jonathan Bird.

What is your favorite dish to cook?

My lobster bisque and my seafood bisque are both pretty badass.

When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

I do look in the mirror frequently. But I look past the physical and I feel proud of what I see, because I know where my heart is and the struggles I’ve been through to be able to stand where I’m standing.

What key quality do you believe all successful people share?  

Persistence and discipline. Without those two, you have nothing, no matter how talented you are.

What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?

My best business decision was becoming a writer as well as a director, and learning all aspects of the filmmaking craft. My worst business decision was licensing music that I don’t own.

What excites you?

Storytelling. Nothing gets me more juiced up than having an impact on people.

How do you want to be remembered?

I want people to know that I tried.