When Worlds Collide

“I think everyone must love life more than anything else in the world.”

> >>>>>   “Love life more than the meaning of it?”

“Yes, certainly. Love it regardless of logic, as you say. Yes, most certainly regardless of logic, for only then will you grasp its meaning.

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

It is 3 AM and I am standing at a crosswalk in New York City.

Times Square is quiet tonight.

It is not silent, mind you – no, the “city that never sleeps” could never be silent. It is 3 AM and the gaudy charmer still churns, twists, flashes its vitality of energy and movement – “You CANNOT miss this show! Buy your tickets now!” HSBC M-M-M-M yellow Barclays FOREVER 21 laughter bubbles summer “would you mind taking a picture of us?” girls in pink uniforms flash-dance camera pretzels Mary Poppins Starbucks grande skinny vanilla lattes smoke from cigarettes MAC make-up American Eagle . . .

And yet, Times Square is quiet.

I stand here – in the midst of all the bustle, honking, explosive color and lights – and the world suddenly blurs, its violent contrast abruptly muted to an almost harmonious hum.

And in the pulse that remains along its softened edges, I find what I have been searching.

“There is nothing to writing. You just sit down and bleed”  – Ernest Hemingway

Kivu at the TFF Filmmaker/Industry Lounge

I see a trajectory in the chaos. The need for an answer, the desperate desire for meaning that drives us here and there, in and out of cities, jobs, interests, and relationships in its pursuit. But here in Times Square, at this precise moment, the structure momentarily fades and in the absence of form and projections telling me what to value and what to believe – I suddenly feel meaning.

Standing next to me is Kivu Ruhorahoza. Those of you who follow my blog may remember Kivu.

Five months ago when I was in Rwanda, I met Kivu at Papyrus through mutual friends. A five-second introduction turned into dinner at New Cactus, a couple parties, and a promise to stay in touch. His nomadic lifestyle inspired me – a life of spontaneity and adventure lived for the sake of artistic creation and expression.

When I met Kivu, he was a struggling filmmaker trying to secure post-production funding for his film. He briefly explained to me the plot of his film (an explanation, by the way, that did not do the film justice), but I was more interested in Kivu’s plans to publish a novel. Then, in March, I received an unexpected email – Kivu’s film, Grey Matter, had been selected for a world premiere at the TriBeCa Film Festival! Grey Matter set a precedent not just as Kivu’s first feature film – but also as the first feature film by a Rwandan filmmaker.


A couple emails and gchat conversations later, I had a plane ticket to New York City and a one-week pass to TriBeCa.

Yes, that is Robert De Niro.

During the day, I would follow Kivu around the TFF/Filmmaker Lounge and the Cadillac Press Lounge where he did interviews with The New Yorker, Slant Magazine, radio stations, etc. Then, starting at about 5pm, we would begin attending the cocktail parties, press meet and greets, filmmaker industry parties, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) parties, film premiere after parties, etc. etc.

I’ve never felt so networked-out in my life.



I always get this “WOW” response when I say that I ate with Robert De Niro at the Directors Brunch, or that Adrian Brody and Eva Mendes were also at the Cadillac Press Lounge. And apparently, I met a lot of famous people that I didn’t recognize – like Jay O. Sanders, Denis Leary, Anna Kendrick, Tristan Wilds, etc. – among others.

Kivu at the world premiere of Grey Matter.

Then, there are those on the red carpet just a stone’s throw away – Julia Roberts, Miranda Kerr and Orlando Bloom, Hayden Panetierre, Sean Penn, the list goes on and on.

But honestly, the most remarkable people that I met were not the glitzy glamorous celebrities, but the aspiring filmmakers and struggling writers. I was so impressed and inspired by the artists who traveled from across the world to premiere their films at TriBeCa. For many of them, they brought their life’s work to the festival – creations that have cost years of frustrating labor and fortunes, relationships, opportunities, and maybe even nearly their lives – because they believed they had something worth expressing and communicating to the rest of the world. I admire their nervousness and modesty, the way their eyes light up whenever someone loves their film, the way they despair when others hate it.

Filmmakers Logi Hilmarsson (from Iceland) and Dor Fadlon (from Israel).

Initially, attending all the networking events was a bit tiring and difficult. For starters, I have no connection to the film industry whatsoever. When people came up to me, I always prefaced with a disclaimer “I’m just a friend, no one important – feel free to move on” but I found that people were relieved and talked to me more naturally because I was not another person to impress. The whole thing seemed rather silly – milling about a room with a cocktail in hand, trying to appear as someone “important” so that you can meet and talk to someone “more important” and use whatever skills or connections they can offer to you. In the meantime, there are staff members whose designated roles are to whisper in your ear and tell you exactly who to approach and prep for. The whole thing becomes an evaluation and estimation of people and how useful they can be to you.

Obviously, I wasn’t “important” and wasn’t going to be particularly useful to anyone in the room. Even worse, I hadn’t seen Kivu’s film. So naturally, after admitting my unimportance, I dreaded the second and third questions: “Who is your friend?” and “What is his film about?”

Uh … that’s him over there – Kivu Ruhorahoza. And … haha … I actually haven’t seen his film.”


Kivu insisted that I see his film at the second screening, which meant that I had to endure three days of networking as the “filmmaker’s-guest-who-has-not-seen-the-filmmaker’s-film.”

When I finally saw Kivu’s film, I had even less to say.

Many people call Kivu a “genius” and say that his film is “phenomenal” “fantastic” “amazing” “powerful” and even (much to Kivu’s dismay) “awesome.” His film has garnered very high ratings from critics and generated a lot of buzz in the press and at the festival.

But these words are so empty, so clumsy, so devoid of meaning.

What did you think of the film?” Kivu asked me.

How can I explain this to you?

I didn’t respond. I couldn’t respond.

How could I synthesize my reaction to his film in words when every second of the film was so precisely and sensitively selected and executed? The scenes that I remember vividly – the elevator going up and then down, the taxi-moto, the mirrored reflection, the swarming flies, the lipstick, the machete catching on the fabric, the mini-skirt – do not adequately represent the meaning that I absorbed and that I continue to process.

It was the first time I had watched a film and known its maker.

Every scene became a creation and extension of the artist, and the film felt that much more intimate and captivating. I entered the story knowing that I was entering into Kivu’s imagination, his memory, his experience and his pain. The characters communicated so much more than what they verbalized and I sat in the cinema mesmerized by all that I watched, experienced, and learned. Two thoughts came immediately to mind as I watched Kivu’s film: 1) I really need to stop watching so many crappy films when there are films like this out there, and 2) Damn, I’m going to need to re-write my thesis.

But the true impact of his film is something that I continue to probe and process.

How do I respond to Yvan? Here is a character whose pain and torture is so far removed from everything I know, and who is himself distanced from the horrors that he imagines, and yet his experience is so unbearably personal and resonant. I watch him suffer from demons he cannot control and, as a viewer, I am also helpless as I watch the cycle unfold. The insanity of a madman and the silent, almost-invisible struggles of two siblings communicate the trauma of genocide with far greater precision and truth than graphic images of violence and killing. I grasp the “Cycle of the Cockroach” and its explicit tie to Rwanda and to Africa, but I feel uneasy with its implications – not just for the characters in the film, but also for the parallel reality that the characters represent. What does it mean to make a film about a cycle? The “Cycle of the Cockroach” implies no end to pain and suffering, but like the characters, I continue to ignore its inevitability and hope that things will get better.

Kivu accepts an award at the TFF Award Ceremony.

The camera pans out on the struggling filmmaker as the film ends, and I feel no hope. But I do not think that is what you are trying to say.

What do you want me to know?

Overnight, Kivu transformed from a struggling filmmaker to a celebrity. His film, Grey Matter, won two awards – a Special Jury Commendation for Best New Narrative Director, and also, the award for Best Actor. So many doors seemed to open that night, but it was humbling to see how Kivu took all of the film’s success in stride and continued to prefer a quiet dinner and evening stroll over the clamoring press, distributors, producers, etc that all suddenly wanted to be his best friends.

Which leads us back to Times Square.

So much has happened since our five-second meeting in December.

How can I explain this to you?

I’m not sure that I can.

But as we stand here in all of life’s vitality, energy, and promise – in Times Square, but also in Kigali, Chicago, Texas, Brussels, Paris – I sense meaning in the moment. Who knows why things happen and why we meet the people we do?

Life is terribly predictable and unpredictable in turns, but I know that every second of all of this – this tenuous, finicky, messy battle/race/journey we call life – matters.

And perhaps it is this embrace of all of life’s minor details and random encounters, that leads us to a better comprehension of life’s meaning.

I cannot explain this to you.

But I hope you understand.

Links to interviews with Kivu about his film, Grey Matter:

TriBeCa’s interview with Kivu: http://www.tribecafilm.com/festival/features/Kivu_Ruhorahoza_Grey_Matter.html

New York Times: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/kivu-ruhorahoza/

Film Review by Slant Magazine: http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/grey-matter/5464