16 July 2017

Rwanda: Eliane Umuhire On Spreading Her Acting Wings

The last time I met actor Umuhire Eliane for an interview was in May 2015.

That time, the actor was as busy as the proverbial bee. The following month, she would be part of the cast for Imbabazi, a musical based on the feature film, Imbabazi (The Pardon), by Rwandan director Joel Karekezi.

The same month, she would also be gracing the stage for the first edition of the Ubumuntu Arts Festival.

In the same month of July 2015, shooting of the Rwandan scenes for the movie, Birds Are Singing in Kigali would also kick off. The Polish production about the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi would be Umuhire's debut international movie appearance.

So imagine her joy when, at the recent Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) in the Czech Republic, the actor scooped the coveted Best Actress award jointly with her co-star, the Polish actor Jowita Budnik.

In the film, Umuhire plays the role of Claudine Mugambira, a young Tutsi Genocide survivor, while Budnik plays Anna Keller, a Polish Ornithologist and divorcee for many years.

"They gave each of us their own award and it's the first time they were doing that -giving two awards to two people for one role. They realized that the movie was very powerful and our acting was equally powerful because Claudine my character wouldn't have existed if Anna wasn't there and vice versa," Umuhire explained, adding that "it (the award) is very heavy, around seven kilograms."

The film was shot in Poland in 2014, then in 2015 the Polish cast came to Rwanda for the final shooting.

As a theater practitioner, Umuhire has trotted the globe, performing on stages in Uganda, the DRC, Tunisia, Sweden, Germany, U.S.A, Italy, Poland, Austria, Belgium, and The Netherlands, among others.

But Poland stood out for her as the "most memorable":

"I was alone in a country that the media had depicted another image to me, and what I discovered was amazing! From the people, to the country, the food, the history, the nature ... )." She spent three months in Poland shooting the film.

About Karlovy city where the festival was held she notes:

"It's such a beautiful place. It's a hilly city that really made me think of Kibuye because of all the corners and the hills and the city being seated on hills and valleys so it's just charming. It's an old, beautiful city that looks almost like a movie set."

At the movie premiere, she was quite nervous, and understandably so; this was her first go at the international film festival stage:

"The first task was getting information and documenting myself to know what kind of audience comes to that festival, which category is that festival -is it just a casual festival or is it an A-class festival. This was A-class. That means the clothes to wear mean a lot, even the make-up and the way you talk and walk, because you're going to meet different people who are big in the industry so how do you talk to them so that you don't get forgotten?," she explained:

"All this no one had told me. I had to make my own research. Going to a movie premiere is almost like attending a wedding to me so I had to make it memorable for myself."

Birds Are Singing In Kigali was competing in the main competition with a dozen other films. "Each movie had its own day to premiere. Our premiere was on the 5th of July. That's when I saw the movie for the first time as well."

"For the premiere of our movie all the tickets were sold out for 1,200 seats in the biggest hall at the festival. It was the same full house the second day, in another hotel where James Bond film Casino Royale was shot.

In the run up to the premiere, Umuhire started hearing some positive feedback about the film, although scooping the Best Actress accolade did not ever cross my mind. If anything, she was content just sharing the story of her motherland to an international audience and flying the country's flag high.

"People said it's a different movie from what they were used to, from the editing to directing but mainly from the way it's acted. One lady told us she thought it's a documentary because it seemed so natural, as if there were no cameras."

Receiving the Best Actress award was an all but emotional affair for her. The film's co-director, Krzystof Krauze died while the movie was still being shot.

More tragedy awaited the cast when the film's Director of Photography for the Polish scenes also passed on shortly after shooting was completed.

"Our win was the result of their work and we would have wanted them to be there."

But the win, she insists, is not just hers and that of her co-star, but one for the Rwandan art fraternity in general:

"Sometimes we're here in our small industry and we say oh we're not getting anywhere with our acting and theater and movies but it's getting somewhere and it's upon us to not quit and keep on fighting so this award goes to all the artists."

She also speaks highly about Jowita Budnik, her co-star:

"We spent a lot of time together both in Rwanda and Poland. When I went to Poland I had almost a month of preparations and it was mainly talking with the directors about the character but also spending time with Jowita, checking the locations where we would be shooting, visiting her family and going out together so that we get closer."

Artistic roots

Umuhire was lucky to have been born into a family of artists, which gave her an early induction.

She grew up around uncles who were sculptors and painters, while her paternal grandfather was a poet. Her parents would compose and recite poems on special family and social occasions, with dance an integral part of their family reunions.

By the age of eleven, she was already asking her mother if she could act:

"She told me Eliane, you can do whatever you want to do, as long as you want it. From then on I was set! I was 11 years old, and I promised myself to step on a stage!"

Ironically, Umuhire studied Accounting at the University of Rwanda's College of Arts and Social Sciences. There she met two "wonderful artists and mentors" that would later turn out her biggest artistic influences: Hope Azeda of Mashirika Performing Arts and Media Company, and Carole Karemera of Ishyo Arts Center.

While at the university, she was easily drawn into the institution's Center for Arts and Drama which equipped her with the primary techniques in theater. She quickly enrolled with Les Stars du Theater, the university's theater troupe.

The center further introduced her to the world of contemporary theater and dance.

In 2009, after graduating from university, she joined Mashirika where she dabbles in various roles including lead actress, dancer and theater instructor.

It is through Mashirika that she was cast for the leading role in 'Birds are singing in Kigali'.

As a part of Mashirika, she has performed in various plays which include among others: 'Echoes of Peace' (for the 17th commemoration of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi), 'Africa's Hope' (which toured in 2012 in the US), and 'Bridge of Roses'.

Umuhire, the actor

As an actor, Umuhire views herself as a storyteller temporarily extinguishing people's worries as she plays out alternate realities on stage or on screen.

"Sometimes an actor holds up a mirror, shining light on hidden societal issues, but again he/she often helps the audience escape, reminding them of happier times or our greater human potential."

"With an actor carrying our frustrations, fears, desires and hopes, we can let go of the fight- at least for a little while. The role of an actor in society should not be underestimated," she concludes.

"Although it's easy to get caught up in celebrity and fame, the timeless function of the actor is to take on communal pain and provide emotional and spiritual purification for every person in the audience. I truly believe that an actor is essential to the psychic health of our world."

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