Lee Isaac Chung's Almond Tree sees helmers branching out

KIGALI, RWANDA — More than five years after American helmer Lee Isaac Chung arrived in Rwanda to lens his debut feature, the seeds he planted among local filmmakers have begun to sprout.

Chung’s shingle, Almond Tree Films Rwanda, has produced a handful of highly regarded shorts that have traveled to international fests. Three of the company’s young helmers have been selected for prestigious training academies abroad. A partnership with Tribeca Film Institute is in the works.

Now, Almond Tree’s helmers are jump-starting their own initiative to share their talents with other aspiring filmmakers in Rwanda.

It is a way, says managing director Jean Kwezi, to ensure that young Rwandans can continue to find ways to present their stories onscreen.

Almond Tree’s roots took hold in 2006, when Chung arrived in the small East African nation to film his acclaimed first feature, “Munyurangabo,” about reconciliation in a nation still haunted by the ghosts of the 1994 genocide. The helmer enlisted the aid of young Rwandans who had shown an interest in filmmaking, but lacked formal training.

During production, Chung offered his students a crash course in the basics of filmmaking. Many would appear — both onscreen, and behind the camera — in the pic.

Two years later, Chung’s involvement in the country continued to grow. After successive trips to Rwanda to provide more training and mentorship, he went a step further in 2008, and formed a Rwandan outpost for his U.S.-based production company, Almond Tree Films.

The gamble quickly bore fruit. In a country whose film industry is still in its infancy, the young helmers at Almond Tree have lensed a series of shorts and their first feature-length film, and have put in place a ragged distribution system to sell DVDs. This year, they’re beginning to offer short, intensive training courses for young Rwandans looking to learn the fundamentals of film production.

The company’s global exposure is growing. Almond Tree filmmakers Edouard Bamporiki was selected to participate in Focus Features’ Africa First program; Yves Montand Niyongabo traveled to China with six other African filmmakers as part of an initiative by the Rotterdam Film Festival; and Richard Mugwaneza has been invited to this year’s talent campuses in Berlin and Durban.

Chung says he has also been in talks with TFI, which commissioned and screened shorts from three Almond Tree filmmakers last year, to forge an ongoing partnership and continue to provide equipment, training and mentorship.

“We share the goal of seeing a flourishing national cinema in Rwanda,” Chung says.

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