Rwanda Film Festival: A decade and still counting

Eric Kabera describes the just concluded 11th edition of his brainchild, the Rwanda Film Festival as “quite a ride, quite an experience, starting on a positive note”:

“Being positive does not mean that it didn’t come with its own challenges,” he hastens to add, “because anything good comes with its own share of pains and challenges.”
For seven days between July 19th and 31st, film enthusiasts, film makers and other industry professionals had a chance to partake in the best new films from established and up-and-coming filmmakers from Rwanda and the international scene.

Also known as “Hillywood”, the festival’s major objective is “to bring beauty, laughter, entertainment and education to the remote hills of Rwanda,” explains Kabera.

“Our principle objective is to promote and encourage awareness, appreciation and understanding of the art of cinema in Rwanda, to present the most outstanding films produced in every part of the world.”

Roots of the festival

As the pre-eminent face of the local film industry, Kabera has had his fair share of travels across the globe, checking out different international film festivals in places as diverse as Berlin, London, Toronto, Los Angeles and Zanzibar.

“As you know, film festivals are a tool to get countries known. They are a tool to talk about other people and get to know them. When you go to these festivals, you discover stories and cultures, and know of situations through the films. And by observing that I actually decided that it was very important for me to embrace the trend.”

As such, he is reluctant to hoard all the credit for bringing the trend home:

“I’ll not claim the Rwanda Film Festival has been just a story of myself. Film festivals have always been there around the world, and film festivals have always captured people’s imaginations, created opportunities and connected people.”

He believes that the story of the Rwanda Film Festival is the story of Rwanda itself, “because if you look at where Rwanda came from and where we are today, I think the festival is really also a reflection of that.

The current leadership of President Paul Kagame has inspired many of us, including myself, and within that framework you kind of learn to work with the limited resources at your disposal but actually achieve milestones. It’s a culture of not necessarily complaining about what’s not there, but actually creating the opportunities that have to be there.”

Maintaining momentum

Kabera recalls that the beginnings were harsh, working within a framework of people who didn’t know what the festival was all about. But it was only a matter of time before the festival started receiving nods from all the relevant quarters:

“As the years went by, people started to appreciate, from the ministry of culture to RDB who came to understand the magnitude of it.”

Kabera further believes that getting passionate young people involved has fostered a culture of ownership, further spurring the festival to greater heights.

“Unlike many other festivals around the region whereby people don’t feel that they own it, I think that we have empowered young men and women to be involved. These young men and women we work with understand the challenges: One of the principals is that it’s hard. It’s not a cash crop which you come and sell then walk out with some cash. They have to work long hours, and in a sense they also have to learn by being exposed to other people and by understanding what it takes.

Upcountry screenings

As part of the festival, there was a four day travelling program that involved screening films for upcountry audiences in Musanze, Rwamagana, and Gicumbi.

On Monday July 27, I travelled with the Kwetu team to Gicumbi for one such screening. Initially slated for the stadium, the screening was hastily moved to the quadrangle in the town center at the last minute. It was a marvel to see the Kwetu technical team bring down the equipment in record time to move to the new venue.

Kabera believes that the upcountry screenings are part of the reason the festival still shines bright:

“I know we don’t have enough resources and logistical support required to hold it stronger, but I think it’s the most fascinating aspect of our festival. Because I think people have the appetite to see the films, and secondly, they actually get impressed by the technology we bring, like the inflatable projector screen.

As you know in the countryside they don’t have a lot of entertainment. In the evening people just stay idle and just end up in bed, and as a result you end up with some serious issues of population.

The other thing is we really want to make sure we just don’t have edutainment in Kigali alone, but also in the rural areas because the upcountry screenings are as important as those at Serena or the Kwetu Film Institute. It’s part of the social and cultural responsibility that we’ve up held within the organization.”

Highlights

One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the production of short films that were made within the framework of the Rwanda Media Project. This is a project that brings together the Kwetu Film Institute and the European Film Center based in Germany.

They included Raisi, a film about the trials, tribulations and dreams of a one-legged biker, Horror Mama, and My Shade, a short film that tells the compelling and dramatic story of a kid who is born out of the circumstances of an HIV positive parent with a mental disorder.

“Most of the films cast were very educative and not necessarily entertaining. They educate, they inspire, they encourage, they motivate and they literally show you the capacity and limitations that life presents, and how you can overcome them.”

Kabera believes that the festival’s major challenge –that of finances has also had a silver lining to it.

“The challenge of limitation in our financial capacity to execute the job is what has actually helped us gain some form of respect when people see how challenging it is to do the job and actually wonder how we do it with no budget.

I was in Germany and asked around, and I was told the Berlin Film Festival receives over 300 million Euros to run the festival, and that is state sponsorship.

But we dare to do it, we dare to embrace that vision.”

As things go, the festival still relies heavily on people’s good will, and some institutional support from bodies like RDB and the ministry of culture.

The future

Even amidst the financial woes, the future looks bright.

“One of the biggest mandates and focus we have now and the next 5-10 years is actually to have a home where we can be screening films, because there are many films that are independently produced here in Rwanda, but that are rarely seen either on television or in big cinemas,” Kabera explains.

Ideally what he has in mind is to create a space where the films will be shown. The structure that will house this facility has been under construction at the Kwetu Film Institute premises in Kibagabaga for the last seven years.

He has been busy raising funds, some through loans, and getting people to pay for a chair and get their names engraved on it, parting with some money for it, which entitles them to membership of about five years.

He has had a few generous donations from Hollywood but would love to see more Rwandans on board.

“Whoever is interested can come up and chip in, and have their name registered as part of the people that belong to this place. It’s going to be modest but technically sound, more of a community space, not a commercial one. It’s a free cultural and community space where people will come and share their stories and ideas.”

With enough funding in place, the facility should be up and running in one year from now.