“I felt like I was outside of it all, watching this dynamic of American history play out,” said Brown, a Rutgers alumnus and a part-time lecturer at the university, in the Department of Africana Studies.
But his ability to carefully observe complicated dynamics has fueled his career as a filmmaker. Brown makes movies that seek new revelations in familiar tragedies. A 2006 documentary that the 34-year-old produced - Death of Two Sons – explored the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo by juxtaposing his life with that of a young American who died during a stint in the Peace Corps in Diallo’s home village in Africa.
Brown’s latest film – Kinyarwanda – tells the remarkable story of Rwandans who crossed ethnic and religious lines to protect others during the 1994 genocide. The film, directed and written by Brown, was screened in January at the Sundance Film Festival, the largest showcase for independent films in America. The film won the festival's World Cinema Audience Award for drama.
Based on true accounts, the film weaves together six stories to show how a mosque and a Muslim religious school became places of refuge during the mass killings, which over the course of 100 days claimed an estimated 850,000 lives. Imams, or Muslim spiritual leaders, opened their doors to give refuge to the targeted Tutsi population and those Hutu who refused to participate in the killing.
For Brown, the movie continues a personal and artistic odyssey that began with his family’s move to New Jersey, where he initially felt like an outsider, and began immersing himself in books, television shows, and movies.
Rutgers would soon play a role in his artistic development. He was drawn to the New Brunswick Campus by the diversity, and by the English Department.
“Rutgers was always right down the street, but I was stunned when I realized how international it was,” he said.
The English program helped sharpen his writing, he said. And a summer course examining the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles opened his eyes to the power of film.
“A lot of my work has Hitchcock elements – the anticipation, the suspense,” he said. “In Kinyarwanda, the genocide is in the background. You don’t see it, but you feel on the edge of your seat because you understand that it’s a ticking time bomb.”
After completing his undergraduate work in 1998, Brown returned to Rutgers and earned a master’s in education in 1999. He later earned his MFA at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
The idea for Kinyarwanda, which refers to the traditional language of Rwanda, came together after Brown began collaborating with a young filmmaker in Rwanda. Brown met many Rwandans and heard their stories – stories that left him devastated and moved.
“In the country where there is population of 10 million and a million people were killed, everyone has a story to tell,” he said. “I started jotting the stories down, and at one point, I just realized: ‘I have my stories; I have my characters.’’’
The movie is one of 14 films selected for Sundance’s World Cinema Competition out of more than 1,000 submissions.
Brown is still seeking a distributor. He hopes Kinyarwanda can reach a larger audience, especially in the U.S., because it provides an increasingly rare example of how religion can bring people together instead of driving them part.
“It’s truly an interfaith journey in which people’s differences disappear and all that remains is faith, hope and love,” he said.