Nair's Maisha Labs trains local filmmakers

JOHANNESBURG — Eight years after setting up shop in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, Indian helmer Mira Nair’s Maisha Film Lab has become one of the largest training grounds for film talent in East Africa.

Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”) arrived in Kampala in 1989 to lense her second pic, “Mississippi Masala,” beginning the helmer’s long love affair with an East African nation she still calls home.

Her experiences in the country led to disillusionment with the way that Africa was portrayed by Western media and filmmakers.

“One so rarely sees any images from the African continent that even vaguely resemble what it is like to live here, or to struggle here — the dignity and the power and the beauty of it,” she says.

In founding the Maisha Film Lab more than a decade later, she hoped to counter those negative images and create a top-flight local cinema culture.

Maisha was a perfect fit in a region that has a vibrant oral storytelling tradition, but few opportunities to translate those stories into film, and with few formal academies offering technical training.

In the eight years since its founding, Maisha has sent more than 550 alumni into the film and TV industries across the continent, with half a dozen helmers going on to direct their own features.

There are 10 programs being offered in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania, with the two flagship programs — a two-month screenwriting and directing lab in July and August, and a month-long documentary lab — held each year in Kampala.

Students are drawn from a competitive talent pool in east Africa, with each receiving a full ride from a list of funders that includes the Doha Film Institute, the Goteborg Film Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation and a host of individual contributors.

In spite of the support, Nair says funding the film lab — which boasts a $420,000 annual budget — is “a real hustle.”

Yet slowly, she believes, Maisha is helping to transform the way the world looks at Africa — and the way Africa looks at itself.

“The enormous validation and entertainment one gets from seeing your own situation, and your own language, and your own struggle onscreen is a very powerful thing,” she says. “If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will.”

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