Filmmakers churn out pics, look elsewhere for funding

NAIROBI — Justin Chadwick’s “The First Grader,” a BBC Films/U.K. Films Council co-production shot on location in Kenya, swept the awards at Kenya’s recent film festival. But the success of the movie, which is based on a true story, underscored some of the problems facing the fledgling industry in this East African nation.

Though Kenya has often served as a picturesque backdrop for big-budget foreign productions, the local biz has struggled to find its own footing, even when telling its own stories.

Steep lensing fees and poor distribution networks have handcuffed independent helmers, while the thriving Riverwood industry, which churns out hundreds of low-budget, straight-to-video pics each year, hasn’t generated enough revenue to spur growth and reach a mass-market audience.

Filmmakers are hoping the long-awaited creation of an official film policy will address some of the industry’s biggest challenges.

According to Kenya Film Commission CEO Peter Mutie, the policy will allow for the creation of a film fund; the introduction of incentives for local and foreign productions; the establishment of a national film institute; and increased coordination between the various government agencies involved in the filmmaking process.

The policy will also require Kenyan broadcasters to make at least 40% of the content they air local, and will put pressure on pubcaster KBC to invest more heavily in the Kenyan industry; both measures should be a shot in the arm for local filmmakers.

But while the policy is comprehensive as drafted, it could have a long legal road ahead, according to Jim Shamoon, managing director of production services company Blue Sky Films. The introduction of a new constitution this year, which transfers a significant amount of power to local governments, means that the policy will now have to be negotiated with dozens of county legislatures.

“We don’t think it’s going to be implemented anytime soon,” Shamoon says.

Still, Shamoon says the government has shown a commitment to pushing the policy through, and expects it to continue to do so in the industry’s bid to strengthen its role as a regional powerhouse.

With nearly two dozen East African filmmakers invited to take part in the 10-day festival, KIFF underscored the growing efforts to increase cooperation between the region’s film industries.

Rwandan helmer Eric Kabera, who recently launched East Africa’s first film institute in Kigali, says regional filmmakers “need to have a platform to share and exchange ideas.”

And while last year’s formation of the East African Community Customs Union should eventually allow for the free flow of labor and goods between the region’s member states, Mutie also points to the widely spoken lingua franca of Swahili as another advantage for East African filmmakers.

“The population within the region is almost 140 million,” Mutie says. “That is a big market for the film industry.”

So far, though, the desire to integrate hasn’t translated into concrete results. Just two of the five member states of the East African Community have their own film commissions, and talk of co-production treaties and an East African film fund have stalled.

“To engage effectively, we also need that structure (in other countries),” Mutie says. “You are as strong as your weakest link.”

East African filmmakers are nevertheless building ties on their own, with international collaborations on the rise and plans to integrate local film festivals into a regional network.

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