Balthazar’s The Cycle of the Cockroach is a spare, slow-paced, austere two-act drama that follows one traumatized Rwandan, Yvan (Shami Bizimana), and the sister, Justine (Ruth Shanel Nirere), who tries to help him. The first act is basically all Yvan, as we observe his behavior in what appears to be a mental institution; then we’re introduced to Justine, and the second act commences. Set in their home, this act details not only the lingering effects of Yvan’s post-traumatic stress disorder (which manifest themselves in visions of burning corpses as well as the helmet he keeps on his head throughout), but also Justine’s desperate attempts to get him help (she even goes so far as to give a psychiatrist a blow job in order to ensure her brother will get the help he needs).
Balthazar is not only interested in seeing how these two characters behave, but trying to get into their heads as well, especially in Yvan’s case. In the first act, Balthazar includes many lengthy shots of him staring at a cockroach he’s trapped with a cup on the floor; he also layers the soundtrack with clips from radios broadcasts in which Tutsis call Hutus “cockroaches” and call for their slaughter. The second act takes a more detached perspective, content to simply observe his two characters through long takes and careful framing…
…Wait a minute, you might be wondering at this point: Who is Balthazar, what is The Cycle of the Cockroach, and what does any of this have to do with the film titled Grey Matter that’s ostensibly under review here? All of that is laid out in the nearly half-hour prelude that opens Rwandan filmmaker Kivu Ruhorahoza’s debut feature; it’s an audacious prologue that quite possibly offers the film’s real raison d’être even more than what follows afterward.
In this prelude, we’re introduced to Balthazar (Hervé Kimenyi), an intelligent, ambitious young filmmaker who’s trying to raise the money to shoot this film he calls The Cycle of the Cockroach. He’s not finding much success; at one meeting with a potential backer, he’s told that his script is too pessimistic, and that he ought to make some kind of uplifting “message” film instead, maybe something about AIDS or gender-based violence. Balthazar, however, refuses to simply accept this; as he confides to his lead actress, Mary (Natasha Muziramakenga), he will continue on with this project without proper financing or even the right equipment (early on in the film, he’s seen berating a crew member for not getting him his requested lights). In the meantime, he considers, among other things, whether it’s worth risking censorship to include what he considers an important rape scene in his film, which leads to a discussion with Mary about the differences of the onscreen representations of rape in both Blue Velvet and Irréversible.
All of this is quite fascinating in the moment, and would lead you to believe that you’re going to see a film about filmmaking. But then, as Balthazar rehearses a scene by himself, the film suddenly shifts into the film described in the first paragraph above. In the subsequent two acts of Grey Matter, then, the film shows us scenes from the film that Balthazar envisions in his mind—shards of an artistic vision that we witness him desperately trying to finance in that prelude. This might sound like the setup for an intermingling of cinema versus reality in the mold of, say, Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, but, in fact, Ruhorahoza’s film ends up being quite straightforward in its delineations of what’s real and what’s imagined.
That’s not to say that Cycle of the Cockroach scenes that we see enacted on screen have nothing whatsoever to do with the preceding opening section. With Justine, in the film-within-a-film, trying to encourage his disturbed brother to paint and/or write the way he used to before participating in combat, there’s at least one thematic connection bridging these two parts: this question of just how effective art can truly be in working through personal demons and national traumas.
Without the prelude offering a certain measure of political and personal context, Grey Matter might still have made for an effectively sobering representation of the psychic scars that still haunt many Rwandans after the 1994 genocide. But by making us aware, through that prologue, of the artist behind it all, Ruhorahoza dares to demolish fiction’s inherent distance from what might be considered “reality.” By the film’s final shot, then (which, coming as it does after having been immersed in Balthazar’s Cycle of the Cockroach for an extended period of screen time, brings us back that reality with gut-punch force), we feel like we have gotten an unusually vivid, and quite unsettling, cross-section of what is brewing in this particular artist’s mind. Is his fiction enough to exorcise whatever demons might be lurking inside his mind? Grey Matter, to its credit, leaves us with no easy answers to that question.