War Child12-28 June 2009

This year saw the fifth Rwanda Film Festival, “Hillywood”, take place across the country. Between 12th and 28th of June, local and international films were shown on remote hillsides as well as at elegant venues in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. The choice of movies and the Festival’s unique format made for an extremely interesting event.

It has been 15 years since the Rwandan genocide claimed more than 800,000 lives. The memory of the 100 days of pre-planned slaughter, the last recorded genocide of the 20th century, is still very much alive in this small central African country. It influences all aspects of life, including cinema.

Local film directors agree that the culture of filmmaking in modern Rwanda took off after the genocide. Foreign TV crews, filmmakers and journalists started arriving in unprecedented numbers. And even though on many occasions they got their stories wrong and ended up with little more than a collection of stereotypes, they left two important things behind: a nucleus of people trained and interested in film production, and an awareness that if Rwandans did not tell their stories, then someone else would.

Eric Kabera, the creator and CEO of Hillywood, was one of the first people to make use of this knowledge. Having worked with a number of international news agencies, he decided to produce a Rwandan film about the genocide. The immediate result of this decision was the critically acclaimed 100 Days (dir. Nick Hughes, 2001) and a more long-term outcome, the Rwanda Cinema Centre (RCC).

The Centre is the driving force behind the Festival, but it is much more than this. In collaboration with the Swedish Institute and other organisations, it trains young Rwandan directors, editors and technicians in all fields of filmmaking. On top of this, it offers equipment for hire to foreign productions coming to Rwanda from all around the world. However, the Festival is one of its main projects.

Hillywood is growing strong in its fifth year. The slightly amazed Kabera says that “it has become much bigger than expected.” The event has definitely made a mark on the East African film festival circuit and somehow written Rwanda into the attempt to promote and develop the idea of a regional film industry in this part of the continent.

The international dimension aside, the festival’s most compelling component still remains its tour around Rwanda’s countryside; the Hillywood proper. It starts a week before the Kigali celebrations kick off and takes films to places where cinema culture is almost non-existent. A team of volunteers and RCC members travels with a 25 feet high inflatable screen and shows films, free of charge, in stadiums, marketplaces and bus stations.

A lot of the people in the audience have had very little exposure to the moving image in their everyday life. The excitement and expectation are almost electric. As the sun goes down behind Rwandan hills and the projection starts, crowds of more than 2,000 people (most of them standing or sitting on the ground) fall completely silent.

Pierre Kayitana, the festival director, says that “the feedback from Hillywood has been really great.” It seems, in comparison to last year, that there has been a conscious programming decision not to include any films explicitly related to the genocide in the rural schedule and, instead, to focus on educational movies and comedies. Kabera comments on this decision: “The memory will always be present, but we need to move on.”

As usual, the program included films in Kinyarwanda (the local language) directed by the RCC’s students and associates. This year’s selection tackled a variety of subjects, from the production of illegal banana wine to deceitful love affairs, and was warmly received.

Among the films produced at the RCC, Ayuub Kasasa Mago’s Fora deserves a special mention. It is a short and uncomplicated story about sibling rivalry and subtle family dynamics. Brilliantly shot and edited, it proves that simplicity is often the most effective device in constructing short narratives. Fora’s merit was also recognised by the Festival jury who awarded it the Best East African Short Film prize.

The rest of the rural program was dominated by rather prescriptive (verging on propagandistic) films sponsored by the charity PSI (People’s Services International). They were a part of a countrywide campaign aiming to raise awareness about the perils of premarital sex (almost completely ignoring contraception) and the risk of contracting HIV. Special emphasis was placed on the temptation and corruption of young men and women by the so-called “shuga dadis” and “shuga mamis”. Despite these films’ many faults, shortcomings and mixed messages, they went down rather well with the rural audience.

However, the real hit of this year’s touring festival was Charlie Chaplin. The programmers included extracts from Modern Times and The Kid, and both had the audience rolling on the floor in spasms of laughter. The enjoyment was aided by a radio DJ Cyril Ndegeya, who narrated the images and translated the intertitles in Kinyarwanda, creating a peculiar and hilarious freestyle polemic with the silent images. There was, indeed, something magical about watching Chaplin wave his little walking-stick on a huge inflatable screen on a moonlit Rwandan hill.

War ChildThe Kigali part of Hillywood emphasised the international aspects of the event, opening with War Child (dir. Karim Chrobog) at the prestigious Serena Hotel.

It is an elegant documentary about Emmanuel Jal, a London-based Sudanese hip-hop artist. Jal spent part of his early childhood in a displaced people’s camp in Ethiopia before becoming a child soldier with the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army). As he puts it in his lyrics: “Left home at the age of seven/one year later I’m carrying an AK-47.” He was later smuggled into Nairobi where, after scraping a life in the slums, his international music career eventually began.

War Child tells the story of Jal’s childhood, career and his efforts to raise awareness about the ongoing crisis in Darfur with his music. It is a clever, skilful and touching film, intelligently interweaving lyrics and concert footage with Jal’s journey back to his homeland. The difficult topic of the Southern Sudan’s history and child soldiers escapes most clichés about the plight of African children. The pace is fantastic and somehow resonant of the rhythm of Jal’s music.

The rural screenings and the Kigali part of Hillywood differed so much that it almost felt like two separate festivals. The three main venues in the capital were upmarket cafes and restaurants with the audience dominated by expatriates, NGO workers and a few middle-class Rwandans. The fourth spot, Kigali’s lively working-class district of Nyamirambo, had a different feel. But the attendance was not impressive.

This is one of the biggest problems the Rwandan film industry faces: the absence of a paying audience. The reasons for this are manifold, ranging from lack of disposable (and on many occasions, any) income and the fact that paid-for entertainment is still a relatively new concept. Kabera says: “in Kigali, we are still building a cinema culture. It’s a part of a long-term plan.”

Defending the move to charge a nominal fee for screenings, Kayitana claims that “when something is for free, people tend to think that is has no value. It’s a slow process of building an industry based on a ticket-buying audience.”

There are valid arguments on both sides, though it is worth noting that in previous years, when the festival did not charge any fees, the numbers were not significantly better.

This year’s programming was definitely heavy on the documentary side (as is often the case with many African film festivals). However, the choices made were frequently excellent. Iseta/Roadblock (dir. Juan Reina) was especially memorable. It follows Nick Hughes, a British cameraman famous for capturing the only existing footage of actual killings during the 1994 genocide from a rooftop of a Kigali school. Hughes comes back to Rwanda to trace the killers and families of the victims, using his images as a guide in his search.

What initially seems like just another story of a Westerner recounting his experience of the tragedy evolves into an eerily raw and haunting film. It is different from many other documentaries about the issue in that it establishes the fact that there is nothing positive about genocide (meaning stories of heroism and compassion), before addressing issues of reconciliation. There is a thoughtful bitterness about this film, which makes it a must-see for anyone interested in the subject.

Other documentaries featured at the Festival especially worth mentioning are: In My Genes (dir. Lupita Nyong’o) about people living with albinism in Kenya, Icyizere: Hope (dir. Patrick Mureithi) documenting a genocide survivors and perpetrators’ workshop in Northern Rwanda, and Iron Ladies of Liberia (dir. Daniel Junge), following Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female president, during her first year in office.

Although slightly under-represented, fiction had a strong footing in this year’s Hillywood with the fast-moving Jerusalema (dir. Ralph Ziman) leading the way – a rather typical story about a good gangster, Lucky Kunene, who takes on the neglectful proprietors of Johannesburg’s cheap housing and creates a semi-legal business empire. Even though the film is slightly predictable, this does not detract from its enjoyable, easy style and touching (but not corny) story. Though a few less shots of sped-up clouds moving in the sky would be a great improvement.

Another worthy fiction film, awarded an honourable mention from the Festival jury, was a Rwandan production. Long Coat (dir. Edourad Bamporiki) is the tale of a genocide survivor and the son of a killer, and the problems and pressures they face in the attempt to put the past behind them. The narrative is simple, but cleverly constructed around an old coat and its mysterious, ominous presence. Although the film sometimes lacks in technical skill, it provides a new and interesting take on a subject that has been notoriously wrought with stereotype and oversimplification.

Otto: BloodbathThe main fiction award for the Best East African Feature went to the Kenyan Otto: Bloodbath (dir. Egregious Jitu). A controversial decision to say the least. It can be assumed that the director’s first name, meaning “conspicuously bad”, provides a humorous yet accurate indication of the type of movie Otto is designed to be. It is a genre piece with “cheap gore” or “no-budget slasher” written all over it, a story of a wronged father coming back to life (in a manner of speaking) and murdering his family via the medium of his mute son/worshipper. Other characters are mostly irrelevant, their existence in the film limited to their being killed off one by one (sometimes in pairs) in a variety of imaginative ways. Needless to say, badly-mixed fake blood flows in rivers.

Having said this, Otto does have moments of visual brilliance and some atmospheric climaxes. However, it is more interesting as a concept than as a film. It falls into the project of similar cheap Kenyan movies, produced in a week or less on a shoestring budget, which aims to mimic or adapt Nigeria’s “Nollywood” to East African reality.

It is possible to imagine Otto developing some kind of niche cult following similar to films such as I Spit On Your Grave. But first it needs to be re-cut, as the Kenyan Censorship Board deemed it inappropriate for distribution.

The fifth Hillywood had enough diverse films and experiences on offer to surpass many older and more established festivals. More importantly, it made it quite clear that the Festival is really an integral and essential part of the Rwandan film world. Kabera and his team seem to be doing a fantastic job of working out the direction in which this young industry might go.

Local filmmakers already know that they need to tell their own stories. Now they have to go further. What started with the tragedy of the genocide has to adapt to the post-conflict reality. And even though most of the stories in development still refer to the systematic massacres of 1994, they do so in different and unusual ways, offering multiple perspectives on the same event. Two very promising directors, Daddy Ruhorahoza and Ayuub Kasasa Mago, are currently developing their first feature-length films, which promise to explore some new and exciting territory and will definitely be something to look out for in the future.

Rwanda Film Festival website: http://www.rwandafilmfestival.org