BUJUMBURA, Burundi The boys of Bujumbura patrol the streets in third-hand T-shirts and ill-fitting jeans, carrying stacks of DVDs they sell to passing motorists, sidewalk diners and curious passers-by. Rifle through the selections in this busy capital of Burundi and you’re likely to find Nigerian crime dramas, Tanzanian romances and Hollywood blockbusters pirated in China. What you won’t find are films made in Burundi.
For an impoverished country still struggling to emerge from more than a decade of civil war, that might not be surprising. But as peace returns to this troubled African nation, Burundian filmmakers are hoping to finally put their country on the map.
“This is the time that Burundians have to tell their stories,” says director Leonce Ngabo, a pioneer of Burundian cinema.
It is, at first glance, a daunting task. Burundi ranks as one of the world’s poorest nations, with most of its 8 million-plus inhabitants surviving on subsistence farming. The average annual income is around $100, and literacy rates are among the lowest in Africa. Few Burundians have regular electricity; fewer still have TVs. On maps of the continent the country is a narrow wedge, almost entirely swallowed by neighboring Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ngabo, however, sees only this nation’s outsized potential. As the elder statesman of the Burundian film industry, whose 1992 debut, “Gito, l’ingrat” (“Gito, the Ungrateful”), remains this country’s first and only feature film, the director is using his influence abroad to give a boost to his young countrymen.
While in Belgium researching his next film, he has been forging partnerships with foreign film festivals and European broadcasters, hoping to find a market for the modest output of shorts and docus coming out of his country.
For the first time in its humble history, Burundi’s industry has some momentum on its side. In 2007, a Canadian filmmaker and Rwandan videographer partnered to establish the Burundi Film Center, and last year, the country hosted its first international film festival. Donor money from UNESCO, USAID, the French Corp., and other international sponsors has provided a boost, as have commitments from the Burundian government to support the nascent industry.
Most importantly, Burundi is finally at peace, after a disastrous civil war that dragged on for 15 years. While most of the rebuilding effort focuses on humanitarian development and ensuring peaceful elections next year, Ngabo hopes stability will pave the way for his countrymen to pursue their cinematic dreams.
“We’re trying to set up a way to help the young filmmakers,” he says, “trying to develop something to give (them) more opportunities with film.”
Christopher Redmond, the Canadian co-founder of the Burundi Film Center, echoes that point. When Redmond first came to the country in 2007, he found “the amount of talent … was incredible.”
Partnering with Raymond Kalisa, a freelance videographer from neighboring Rwanda, he established the Burundi Film Center as a training ground for aspiring filmmakers. The pair recruited 36 young Burundians for a two-month training course in film theory and production.
“We said to them, ‘The world knows nothing about Burundi,” Redmond recalls. “‘If you could tell one story about Burundi, what’s it going to be?'”
The results surprised him. Despite Burundi’s recent troubles — stemming from the same ethnic violence that caused the Rwandan genocide – his students focused less on ethnicity and war than on universal themes like love and family. And their success was encouraging, with five shorts traveling to more than 50 festivals around the world.
Despite such promising signs, the struggles of both the festival and film center highlight the challenges ahead.
After hosting the inaugural festival in 2008, organizers failed to find funding for an encore in 2009; and the film center hasn’t been able to establish a permanent presence in the country without the financial support.
“We have the people to get it all going, we just don’t have the funding,” Redmond says.
Pacifique Nzitonda underscored the problem on a recent afternoon in Bujumbura. The young filmmaker had just arrived from a commercial shoot across town.
Film work in Burundi is scarce. Though he had helped with the Belgian production Nawewe, which shot in Burundi this summer, it was through the production of musicvideos and TV commercials that Nzitonda, like most of his peers, stayed busy — and paid.
On that steamy afternoon, Nzitonda’s camera crew had, as usual, lacked the equipment it needed for the shoot.
“There is nowhere in Burundi where you can buy or rent equipment,” he says. So he reached out to his friends. One arrived with a boom; another with lighting. The shoot went off without a hitch.
“That’s life,” Nzitonda laughs. “That’s how we live here.”