In the world of documentaries, before a filmmaker makes the movie, the subject sometimes creates the filmmaker. So it was when Jeff Ritter heard that 20 young Rwandans were soon to arrive at LaRoche College, where Ritter teaches communications. It was 1997, and a group of Bosnian students had just graduated; Ritter wondered why no one had documented their experience. Inspired by films such as Michael Apted's acclaimed 7 Up series and the hit Hoop Dreams, Ritter snagged some video gear and made sure he was there from the beginning -- when the Rwandans arrived on campus one August day at 2 a.m.
Innocent, Godfrey, Hodasi, Bosco, Eustache, Benjamin and their compatriots traveled here in the wake of genocidal violence which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives back home. Part of Ritter's Abantu N'Umuco: People and Culture (2003) explores what Ritter himself learned about Africa while shooting the video documentary over the ensuing four years. But it also, of course, looks at how the students adjusted to a new life half a world away from the one they knew.
Abantu N'Umuco highlights the Sept. 14 installment of the Film Kitchen screening series. Also screening is Experiments in Sound, a playful 1987 short by Buzz Miller and Greg Pierce.
Earlier this year, watching the commercially released documentary The Lost Boys, about Sudanese refugees in the U.S., "I was amazed [filmmaker Clive Gordon was] able to get such naturalism on camera," Ritter says. The Rwandans by contrast "were very conscious of the camera, very wary of different kinds of media." With good reason: The Rwandan genocide had been fomented by radio broadcasts, and Ritter's subjects saw all media as potentially harmful propaganda.
But just as the students graduated and moved on -- several back to Africa, where Ritter visited them this past summer -- Abantu N'Umuco too was completed, with particular help from Benjamin, who studied under Ritter at LaRoche. Now he's at the University of Wisconsin, in a doctoral program in communications. "Nothing can stop him," says Ritter.
"You can think of it as a fishing show," says Buzz Miller in (and of) his 1987 short Experiments in Sound, made with Greg Pierce when they were students, roommates and Monty Python enthusiasts. Inspired by the Pythons' giddily cerebral style, as well as by the inventive soundtrack noises he heard at a screening of Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth at the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater, Miller baited his mike for acoustic curiosities. With Pierce and other accomplices, they banged a sledgehammer on a metal vault in Frick Park, hurled themselves down snowy hills, smashed through bamboo, climbed cyclone fences, and ran their voices through a guitar-effects pedal straight into Pierce's Super 8 mm camera.
Experiments in Sound won a student competition at Pittsburgh Filmmakers and was a finalist at the Ann Arbor Super 8 festival. But any time it's screened is special, in a sense: No one makes sound Super 8 film anymore, with all its technical idiosyncrasies (including the impossibility of editing sound and picture together). And the images still look as singularly colorful as only film can. "Fresh Kodachrome -- it's beautiful," says Pierce. "It's amazing."