One question haunts Kivu Ruhorahoza's Grey Matter: Can film as a medium communicate the unthinkable and unknowable consequences of mass tragedy? When you're dealing with an event as devastating and massive as the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, where over 800,000 people were killed in a matter of months, any type of definitive answer undoubtedly comes up short. So instead of trying to make sense of the madness through traditional storytelling techniques, Grey Matter embraces a disjointed film-within-a-film structure to examine the ghostly qualities of competing perspectives and experiences. Here, personal and collective malaise is organically linked through a sense of indefinite emotional overlap, where the lingering consequences of personal trauma are made national, and vice versa.
In many ways a fragmented extension of Lee Isaac Chung's magical-realist drama Munyurangabo (on which Ruhorahoza served as associate producer), Grey Matter is wholly interested in the effects of lingering trauma on all Rwandans—most interestingly those who were abroad during the genocide and therefore suffering a sense of tragedy and guilt by extension. In the film's early moments, Balthazar (Hervé Kimenyi), a young director trying desperately to raise money for his audacious film The Cycle of the Cockroach, grapples with this very feeling. Often filmed in isolation, Balthazar traverses modern-day Kigali seemingly lost in thought and haunted by impenetrable memories he's attempting to clarify through his film. Additionally hindered by financial and artistic disappointments, Balthazar conducts a series of video diaries that reveal a seething anger toward a Rwandan government unwilling to address the country's complicated past. The institutional outlets that should support his artistic freedom are failing him, and Balthazar isn't above visiting a sketchy moneylender to get his film made.
Balthazar's frustrations reduce down to their purist form during a conversation with his lead actress, Mary (Natasha Muziramakenga), in which the pair shares an intense discussion on the aesthetic treatment of a scripted rape sequence based on the idea of “insane violence.” When Mary questions his vision, there's an air of pretentiousness to Balthazar's rigid justifications (he cites both Blue Velvet and Irréversible as influences). Almost immediately, Grey Matter cuts into the world of The Cycle of the Cockroach, splitting the remaining running time between two separate sequences that document very different perspectives on post-genocide revisionism.
In the first segment, which takes place entirely inside a stark prison cell, an unnamed bearded inmate credited only as Madman (Jp Uwayezu) relives the hours leading up to the genocide entirely through non-diagetic sound effects and voice over. Propagandized radio announcements, so instrumental in sparking the rage behind Hutu killings of Tutsi's, repeating the word “cockroach” until the Madman is seething with anger. Sporadically, pairs of hands reach through the bars and give the Madman booze, drugs, and finally a machete, a timeline charting both the intoxication of body and soul. The sequence is jarring for its theatricality and affecting because of its confrontationist methodology toward the aggressor's stance.
The second portion of Cycle of the Cockroach is far more nuanced and frightening, addressing the victim's perspective through the eyes of Yvan (Shami Bizimana) and Justine (Ruth Shanel Nirere), siblings who've lost their entirely family in the genocide. His face rendered permanently anonymous by wearing a motorcycle helmet in every scene, Ivan is tortured by images of burning bodies and the incessant sound of machine-gun fire. As Yvan contemplates suicide, Justine is forced to perform sexual favors for the doctor who is providing her brother with medication. Yet the most fascinating aspect of this extended denouement is the revelation that Yvan was studying in Belgium during the genocide, proving his traumatized memories as figments of a guilt-ridden conscious relentlessly trying to fill in the gaps of a tragedy he experienced in absence.
If the final moments of Grey Matter embody both Ruhorahoza and Balthazar's art-film indulgences, especially the overt symbolism of the cockroach, one can forgive such fleeting triteness when there are so many other thematic victories to relish. Most lasting is a wrenching scene where Yvan and Justine visit their family's summer home to watch the exhumation of a mass grave, most of the bodies making up their surrogate family. One of the men digging up the corpses is the aforementioned Madman, and as he swings his shovel out of frame, the next moment he's slicing down using a machete. For these characters, history repeats itself in flashes of memory and trauma like this one, and it's up to talented regional filmmakers like Ruhorahoza to mine such territory until hints of reconciliation can be reached.