116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When you have a story to tell, there’s no place like home, Mokotsi Rukundo said.
“If a story is in you, it has to come out,” Rukundo said after filming in Iowa City, Solon, Davenport and other Iowa locations in April — a William Faulkner quote that has been his guiding mantra since he moved to California in 2016.
So when it came time to clap the clapperboard in front of the camera, the University of Iowa graduate picked rural Iowa — an unconventional choice for Los Angeles movie producers.
“Growing up in Iowa, you have to write what you know,” the “East of Middle West” screenplay writer said, explaining his writing process for the crime drama set in the 1990s Midwest after struggling with the idea of setting it in 1980s Nashville.
Though Iowa doesn’t lend itself to movie production quite as easily as Hollywood and other major cities with tax credits or a ready infrastructure for technical support and scene making, the former corncob vendor said the “Iowa nice” generosity of his home state and authentic rural fields made the venture easier.
“The incredible landscape in Iowa created the backdrop and tone for our film,” said Brian Lucke Anderson, director and co-producer. “The cinematography in this film captures the essence and beauty of a Midwestern small town where the heart of the story takes place.”
With humble beginnings selling corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and fried chicken bowls at Cornroc in Iowa City’s Pedestrian Mall more than 10 years ago, Rukundo, a Swaziland immigrant who grew up in Iowa City, drew inspiration for his budding career from watching people.
“I’ve always been an observer. … The nuances of humans to me are just the most curious thing ever,” he said.
With lots of time to think while working, Rukundo would watch interactions between friends and customers.
“Something would happen with their dialogue and charisma,” he said. “I’d go back and (ask) what (could) happen before and after that to make it really interesting.”
With a notebook, he kept track of potential scenes over the years and creatively expounded on ways to make those interactions into the scenes that make movies. Knowing he had a story in him, he left for Los Angeles after graduating with a business degree to show others those stories.
By week six, he thought he would be discovered by a director and be hired — an anticipation that didn’t come to fruition. As he continued writing for several years, he worked at restaurants where his relationships with customers eventually led to a connection with Anderson, getting his first feature-length film off the ground.
“I came from running a food cart where I was the owner,” Rukundo said. “I didn’t realize I needed a little bit of humbling.”
After several iterations of writing with Anderson, the drama was inspired by the story of Victoria Ruvolo, a New York woman who made headlines in 2005 after urging prosecutors in court testimony to grant leniency to Ryan Cushing, an 18-year-old who almost killed her.
Cushing threw a frozen turkey into Ruvolo’s windshield as she was driving, breaking nearly every bone in her face and nearly killing her.
“We asked what the antithesis of that would be,” Rukundo said. “We used the theme of forgiveness and tried to turn it upside down in a way that was fresh.”
In “East of Middle West,” “a teenage runaway and a widowed father's worlds collide after a split second mistake leaves the stain of blood on all of their hands,” the movie’s summary foreshadows. Faced with the choice of living in secrecy, one main character makes the choice to end the difficult cycle perpetuated by his riddled past.
Rukundo said the story spoke to him after watching kids from his own childhood take on the heavy consequences of impetuous, youthful mistakes.
The writer, 34, said the contrast between his childhood in Africa and Iowa also played a role in his writing, as one of the main character’s struggles stemmed from being an outsider.
“Being an outsider is a very interesting space,” he said. “I was always aware that I was something else. It’s allowed me to be able to explore other worlds without feeling disingenuous.”
Even in Swaziland, where he lived until age 10, Rukundo said he always was seen as an outsider as the child of Rwandan parents.
“I want people to be able to think about (the movie) after they watch it in the sense that there’s a lot of hidden layers,” he said. “The best gift as a filmmaker is to make someone feel something.”
The film, currently making rounds in film festivals, recently appeared at the Julien Dubuque Film Festival and won an audience award for best feature film at the Sarasota Film Festival in Florida. Rukundo anticipates a release on streaming platforms within the next few months.
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