The Storm of Progress

In early 1940, just months before he would die while fleeing the Gestapo in Spain, the Jew­ish-German literary critic Walter Benjamin assembled his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” a brief collection of observations that is equal parts theology and Marxist analysis. In Thesis IX, he studies Paul Klee’s modernist painting “Angelus Novus” and finds in it a usable metaphor for history. Klee’s work depicts a magnificent, expressionist angel whose face is turned toward the past. His mouth is agape and his wings are fully extended as he concentrates his gaze on the ever-growing catastrophe behind him. The angel wishes to pause so that he might revive and redeem human history, but “a storm is blowing from Paradise.” “This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.” Benjamin concludes, “This storm is what we call progress.”

Lee Isaac Chung alludes to “Angelus Novus” when describing his first feature-length film, Munyurangabo, a poetic and beautifully humane snapshot of Rwanda as it exists today, nearly a decade and a half after the genocide. The film, which premiered in May 2007 at the Cannes Film Festival and has since played at fests in Toronto, Los Angeles, London, Rotterdam, Berlin, and elsewhere, adopts a view of “progress” similar to Benjamin’s. “One audience member in Berlin challenged us for ending the movie on a note of hopefulness,” Chung says. “But it’s not a naive or simple hope. Any progress made in Rwanda will come from the hard work of reconciliation combined with a wide-eyed acknowledgment of the past. That’s why we conceived of this simple story of two young boys. Munyurangabo is, in part, about how memory shapes the formation of identity—personal, cultural, and national—and how that identity shapes our behavior.”

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Sojourners Magazine June 2008
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