Early on in Joe Callander’s Life After Death, Texan philanthropist Suzette Munson confidently proclaims “I know what I want and I get it.” Though she is referring to meeting her husband Dave over MySpace, one gets the sense that she is speaking about the film as well. The founder of Love 41, an organization committed to helping children in Rwanda through its profits and sponsorship, Suzette does not seem like the type of person who takes no for an answer. In many ways she is cut from the same cloth as The Blind Side’s Leigh Anne Tuohy.
Determined to do her part to provide education, financial assistance and spiritual guidance to those in need, Suzette makes regular visits to Rwanda to check up on her foundation’s “children”. One of her children is 20-something Kwasa. After witnessing his mother’s death while trying to flee the tragic Rwandan genocide twenty years ago, Kwasa’s life has been filled with hardship. A notorious thief in Kigali, much of Kwasa’s youth has been spent hustling with several stints in jail. The fact that the most recent war related genocide only occurred a little over 7,000 days ago does not help matters.
Through the financial support of Suzette, Kwasa not only finds comfortable living accommodations, but also medical care as well. Receiving additional support from his other “American Parents”, Texas based sponsors Suzanne and Tim; Kwasa seems to have all the tools and love needed to keep his life on the right track. However, is the support really benefitting Kwasa? Or he is simply exploiting the kindness of others for his own personal gain?
Although director Joe Callander uses these questions to help frame his film, Life After Death never actually seems interested in the answers. In fact, there is an air of artifice to the piece that is simply too hard to shake. At times Life After Death feels like its sole purpose is to promote Suzette’s Love 41 company. It is clearly not a coincidence that both Love 41 and Saddleback Leather Co., which is owned by Suzette and Dave Munson, are producers of the film. Callander even incorporates into the film, awkwardly mind you, a blooper reel moment of levity involving Suzette and her sister Tina attempting to record a promotional piece for an upcoming Love 41 fundraiser.
Clearly moments like these are meant to try to humanize Suzette. However, it only highlights how aware everyone in the film is of the camera’s presence. Kwasa is the perfect example of this. Whether displaying his Taekwondo prowess or advising his best friend Fils not to eat chicken bones on camera, because “white people don’t do that”, Kwasa is always aware of the lens that is on him. One minute he is playing the doting son to Suzette denying having racy photos of a local girl on his phone. The next he is calling up said girl to arrange a date. He is shown teaching Fils the importance of the various traffic signs, only to admit a few seconds later that he still has yet to pass the driver’s test…despite three attempts.
More than anything else, Kwasa is portrayed as a source of comedic contradictions. Sure Callander sprinkles in scenes where we see Kwasa reflecting on his past and his father’s incarceration, but Life After Death never punctures as deeply as you would expect. Frankly, it is questionable if Kwasa is even capable of changing based on the circumstances he lives in. The film hardly touches on the numerous factors that would be needed to truly evoke positive change. We are simply left to feel good that there are individuals like Suzette and Dave, as well as sponsors such as Suzanne and Tim, who are willing to do their part.
While the efforts of companies like Love 41, and their sponsors, are to be commended, Life After Death feels extremely manipulative from a cinematic perspective. Callander wants us to root for Kwasa, but does little to prove why we should? In fact, Fils is the one who is depicted as an endearing individual who is genuinely interested in improving his life. Fils dreams of passing his driving exam and talks about working hard. Kwasa perpetually comes across like the class clown willing to do just enough to get by.
In attempting to shed light on those living in the aftermath of genocide, Life After Death ultimately leaves us in the dark. Feeling more like a promotional piece for Love 41, the film only highlights the problem without ever truly delving into any real solutions.