Filmmakers see hope as festival, finances grow

KIGALI, Rwanda — The red carpet was rolled out, the Primus beer was on ice and the young stars of Rwandan film paraded into the Kigali Serena Hotel, where actors, filmmakers and foreign visitors gathered June 18 to usher in the fifth annual Rwanda Film Festival.

Festival founder and chairperson Eric Kabera implored the audience to support his country’s growing film community, while Minister of Sports and Culture Joseph Habineza charismatically solicited potential investors from the podium.

“Is there anybody from the bank (in the audience)?” he asked, to laughter and applause.

If the mood was especially high this year, it was with good reason: In a country whose cinematic culture is hardly a decade old, Rwanda’s burgeoning film industry has slowly found its place on the international festival circuit.

It might seem an improbable feat for a country still recovering from a genocide which, just 15 years ago, claimed more than 800,000 lives. Yet in recent years, as Rwanda has emerged as one of the developing world’s success stories, the growth of Rwandan cinema has marched hand-in-hand with the country’s broader revival. At the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, where three Rwandan filmmakers were featured in the international spotlight, President Paul Kagame went so far as to suggest, “The story of Rwandan film is essentially the story of Rwanda itself.”

It’s a story that began with the filmmaker Eric Kabera, a BBC veteran who, in 1994, collaborated with foreign media sent to cover the genocide. Disillusioned by the perspective they brought to their coverage — and the sense, he said, that they “didn’t even care about the genocide” — he felt compelled to help tell Rwanda’s story from a Rwandan point of view.

In 2002 he established the Rwanda Cinema Centre, a gathering place for aspiring filmmakers to share their stories and receive technical training. Three years later, encouraged by friends in the international film community, Kabera launched the Rwanda Film Festival to showcase the work of his country’s artists.

As the festival celebrates its milestone anniversary in this picturesque country known as the land of a thousand hills, Kabera acknowledges, “We still have a long way to go.” Funding hasn’t always matched the organizers’ ambitions, and Rwandan filmmakers have only just begun to venture into the deep end of the pool, producing their first feature-length films this year.

Yet the progress made by the young film community has been dramatic. Through the popular Hillywood program, festival organizers have succeeded in bringing Rwandan short films to the country’s rural poor, showing movies on inflatable screens to crowds that number in the thousands. And the industry is receiving increased recognition from the international community, with funding coming from a diverse group that includes the cultural-philanthropy group ArtAction; UNICEF; the United Nations Development Program ; South African cellphone provider MTN; and a mix of regional businesses. Relationships forged with Tribeca and the Swedish Institute have brought much-needed equipment and training into the country, and exchange programs will soon be helping young Rwandan filmmakers to perfect their skills abroad.

For Kabera, though, it’s just the first step.

“There’s a momentum, there’s a need to collaborate,” he says. “(Foreign film communities) see we have the potential … and we have the spirit. (Our filmmakers) love what they’re doing, and they want to share their stories with the rest of the world.”

If there was an emerging theme at this year’s festival, it was that Rwanda’s filmmakers are looking beyond the genocide for inspiration. From a philosophical dialogue set in a bathtub to a comedic short about a hapless bootlegger smuggling banana beer in the back of his Jeep, Rwandan artists are finding the ups and downs of daily life to be fertile ground for their stories.

“We’re trying to show Rwanda from another perspective,” says Pierre Kayitana, the festival’s director.

Success, he suggests, will ultimately rest on the willingness of foreign audiences to view Rwandan films with a critical eye.

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