Lee Isaac Chung directs his films with his feet planted to the ground and his ears open to possibility. He’s shot films in both China and Rwanda without speaking either Chinese or Kinyarwanda, and in both cases, Chung allowed the actors to speak for themselves, and insisted that the location shape the story. Unlike some filmmakers, he did not allow a Western-oriented story to trample over what he was seeing in person. His debut feature, Munyurangabo, tells a story of friendship and healing in Rwanda, and was widely acclaimed. Variety recognized it as a “masterful debut,” and Roger Ebert praised it for being “a beautiful and powerful film – a masterpiece.” Chung’s following films, Lucky Life and Abigail Harm earned him a USA Artist Ford Fellowship in 2012. His most recent work has led him both back to Rwanda and home to Arkansas. In both cases, setting, culture, and care will move Chung’s work.
Chung will teach a Narrative Cinema workshop at this year’s Glen Workshop in Santa Fe. During the week-long course, students will create a short film or scene from scratch, writing and developing projects on day one. Over the remaining days they will use smartphones to shoot and edit, employing each other as willing actors. If you are interested in this program, you can read more about the workshop here.
Lee Isaac Chung grew up in Lincoln, Arkansas, a small town in the Ozark Mountains where his family owned a farm. His first film, Munyurangabo, premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim. Variety called the film “an astonishing and thoroughly masterful debut” American critic Roger Ebert called it “a beautiful and powerful film – a masterpiece.” His second film, Lucky Life, was developed at the Cinefondation at the Cannes Film Festival and premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival and 2010 Torino Film Festival. His third film, Abigail Harm, won the grand jury prize and best director at the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival. In recognition of his work, Isaac was awarded a USA Artist Ford Fellowship in 2012.
A couple of years ago, I released a feature length documentary called “I Have Seen My Last Born,” with one of my long time collaborators, Samuel Gray Anderson. We filmed the work in 2014, traveling to Rwanda to capture a portrait of a Rwandan father raising his teenage daughter in Kigali. The work is part of my ongoing effort to research and write a new fiction film set in Rwanda. Through my writing, the story has increased in scope from a ninety minute story to a six part series spanning the past twenty-five years of the country’s history.
I am also writing a few family dramas exploring places that have meant a great deal to me. There are too many threads of stories to mention, so I will keep it to the one that I like most, a story about immigrant farmers set in rural Arkansas, where I grew up. Willa Cather’s semi-autobiographical stories of Nebraska farmers have been a guide, and I am thinking less about plot and am trying to remember the place and time that formed me.