6 April 2008

Rwanda: The Golden Experience of the Silver Screen

The Rwandan film industry is growing, as was shown during this year's film festival. What is more, the movies are well received, both by Rwandans and foreigners. "I respect Rwandan films - they are beautiful, real and carry strong messages. Most films in Japan are boring, and at times they make no sense at all."

The premiere of Renaissance has just ended, and with it the Rwanda Film Festival, and Japanese director Miho Yoshida is impressed. However, having seen various Rwandan films over the past two weeks, she has some words of advice for the country's movie makers: "You see, non-fiction films and documentaries are necessary so that people know the reality of things, but they also need some fantasy."

That applies to Renaissance, a documentary produced by the Rwanda Investment and Export Promotion Agency (Riepa) and Neal Shirley of the US-based Africa Channel, a TV station dedicated to the continent. Renaissance shows how Rwanda has progressed and developed in all its sectors since 1994.

Nevertheless, it was a worthy and much-appreciated conclusion to Hillywood, as the Rwanda film festival has been dubbed. This year's fourth edition, which had over 60 films shown all over the country in a period of two weeks, was a great success.

"It was well organized and bigger than previous editions," says Eric Kabera, director of the Rwanda Cinema Center (RCC) which organizes the film festival. "Seeing all these people standing in the dark watching movies, sometimes in the rain, was like winning a million dollars."

Watching movies while standing in the rain, try to explain that in Cannes or Berlin. Yet it is exactly what makes Hillywood unique; unlike similar events in other countries, where the people go to the festival, in Rwanda the festival goes to the people.

Prior to the screenings in Kigali, Hillywood toured the provinces by means of a big inflatable screen. And the crowds were enthusiastic.

Pascal Ndabukiye from Rwamagana was full of praise of RCC after watching Abana mwirinde ababishuka, a movie on sexual abuse of children. "RCC has done a great thing to come and educate us on the dangers of rape.

It makes people aware of the evil of such acts, and children who have seen this film will be more cautious of their lives. It is good that we see these films that talk about different aspects of reality."

Shock and trauma

It goes to show that Miho Yoshida's plea for more fantasy might not be so easily accepted by a population with little or no exposure to cinema. However, the realism of Rwandan movies is not without risk, given that the main theme still is the genocide.

We are all Rwandans recounts the heroism of the students in Nyange who refused to split up according to their ethnic group; as a result, they were all killed. In Rwamagana, the movie left many spectators shocked, and some even traumatized.

Even the screening in Kigali of Shake hands with the devil to an audience more familiar with cinema, left the spectators in a somber and silent mood, with none of them wanting to comment to Focus on their thoughts or feelings.

Eric Kabera recognizes that the organizers were taken by surprise by these sometimes very emotional reactions, and they will make sure that in the future councilors are available to support people after showing such movies.

Nevertheless, Badyabu Selemani who also watched We are all Rwandans in Rwamagana, thinks that although such films bring back sad memories, "it's good for the people to know what happened and then to learn to forgive.

It can't be helped: it's a reality which will take time for people to come to grips with, but in the end they have to accept that it actually took place."

The rapid growth of the Rwanda film festival shows the long way cinema has come since Nick Hughes and Eric Kabera shot 100 days in 2000, the first film made in Rwanda after the genocide.

The movie was first shown at the Toronto film festival in 2001, and although Kabera himself was there to promote it, he came back nearly empty-handed. History had not been kind: 100 days was screened on September 13, two days after the terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, and nobody was really in the mood to talk about film promotion.

Yet the film gave Kabera the courage to touch the subject of genocide, and he started thinking about a documentary on the effects of the genocide.

For that sensitive subject, he felt that he should work with an all-Rwandan crew, but the required knowledge and experience were nowhere to be found in the country. So, Eric Kabera thought, you go and train them. The Rwanda Cinema Center was born.

Developing the industry

RCC provides training in all the arts related to movie-making: directors, screen writers, camera-men, sound engineers, editing. It has trained numerous young talents, who go in the field to shoot their films, which they then bring back to be edited.

RCC has so far produced ten films, and every year they screen three of them. They also arrange for the movies to be shown abroad.

"We don't have film professionals here, so we train passionate people who want to develop the movie industry," Eric Kabera explains RCC's main objective.

Yves Ntwali is one of these passionate people.

Not only is he an actor since 2005, he also writes and directs movies, such as Love letter to my country, Scars of my dogs, and Graduation day. As an actor, he featured in Shake hands with the devil.

"It's really wonderful to be a film actor and a writer. It's something I had never dreamt of doing," says Yves Ntwali.

Such enthusiasm is transforming Rwanda's film industry, and this has also been noted abroad. Foreign directors are impressed.

"The industry in Kenya is not as active as the one in Rwanda," says Charles Peter Asiba, director of the Kenya film festival. "Our movie-makers are doing the filming abroad. We are trying to convince them to come back home, because it's high time that we developed an East African film industry."

Asiba believes that the East African Community could give a big boost to cinema in the region. "We can make movies in both English and Kiswahili, because these languages are understood throughout the EAC.

It will also become much cheaper in terms of logistics if we could build a big film industry in East Africa. What is more, if we all stay isolated, nobody is going to progress; there are so many things we can learn by showing different films from different countries."

'The dark continent'

Patrick Mureithi, a Kenyan director and writer based in the USA, sees an important role for African cinema and film festivals such as Hillywood.

"Film festivals can contribute to conflict resolution in the Great Lakes region. When you mention Rwanda, everybody immediately thinks Genocide; but here at Hillywood we see that Rwanda is more than that. Through these festivals, people abroad will come to know the realities about Africa."

And that also counts for the West, Mureithi points out. "The propaganda there still shows Africa as 'the dark continent'; most people in America have a bad image of Africa. This is far from the reality, and cinema is an easily accessible tool to paint another picture."

And it's not only foreigners who sing the praise of Rwanda's film industry. The government, too, highly appreciates RCC's work.

"People should stop thinking that the government is the only employer," the secretary general in the ministry of sports and culture, Jean Pierre Karabaranga, said during the closing ceremony of the Rwanda film festival. "Look at what Eric Kabera is doing: he is training youths, who now are doing useful work.

If we can have more film centers, this will mean more education and employment for the youth. What is more, RCC through the festival is giving Rwanda exposure to the world."

Karabanga also remarked that people should learn from the example of RCC to have the courage to pursue their dreams.

"There are many people who have good ideas, but they fear to start because they say that they don't have money. Eric Kabera began from scratch, but look where he is now. Other people with good ideas should also pursue them, because then you will find others who can help you; but if you don't show yourself, no one will know and come to help you develop the idea."

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