/ 24 March 2017

The rise of Rwanda’s women filmmakers

Lughisha Pamella
Lughisha Pamella

When the week-long Pan-African Film and Television Festival (Fespaco) drew to a close in Ouagadougou at the start of March, it was a night of many firsts.

The festival, which has taken place biennially in Burkina Faso since 1969, named the winner of the inaugural Thomas Sankara prize, established in honour of the country’s revolutionary leader and former president.

Celebrating films by Africans made mainly in Africa, Fespaco awarded the prize to Rwandan director Marie-Clémentine Dusabejambo for her short film A Place for Myself, about Elikia, a young Rwandan girl with albinism discriminated against at school and in her community, and her mother’s fight to protect her.

“I became interested in my film’s topic in 2008 after hearing about the killings of people with albinism in Tanzania. There was lots about it in the news that really stuck in my mind. And I hadn’t seen many people with albinism in Kigali, except an old man, a street beggar, who no one came close to,” she says.

At the time, Dusabejambo, who had no formal film training, was embarking on her career and, according to news reports, between March 2007 and October 2008, 50 people with albinism had been killed, just across the Rwandan border.

“I wanted to go to Tanzania but, as a young woman filmmaker, I lacked the means. So my mom suggested I stay in Rwanda and question why we don’t see albinos here.

“I did research [and discovered] a community that is hidden, whose own families at times marginalise them by keeping them indoors.”

A week after our meeting at Kigali’s Hilltop Hotel, Dusabejambo also scooped the La Chance prize at Fespaco, making her one of the few women filmmakers from Rwanda to win major awards at the festival.

The win highlighted not only her work but also the growing tide of female filmmakers in Rwanda who are breaking into the global film scene — this in a nascent and still very male-dominated Rwandan cinema industry. Their stories tell what they feel strongly about, including their sexual identity, the consequences of the genocide and living with HIV in the East African country.

“The film industry in Rwanda is new. There aren’t more than a handful of female filmmakers here,” she says about established women directors in Rwanda.

Nicknamed Hillywood because of the country’s rolling hills, Rwanda’s film industry emerged in the early 2000s when the country was rebuilding, following the 1994 genocide and civil war, which left nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead in 100 days, and during which an estimated 500 000 women were raped, two million people were displaced and the country’s infrastructure severely damaged.

“When the film industry started in Rwanda, it was 99% male,” says filmmaker Eric Kabera, credited as the founder of Hillywood and who in 2001 produced the first feature on the genocide, titled 100 Days.

“The dominance of men in the industry inspired people to encourage young girls and women to take up on the trade,” he says about initiatives such the Rwandan Women Panorama, which showed films made by women and which was facilitated by the Swedish Development Agency.

Two years after 100 Days premiered, Kabera established the Kwetu Film Institute in Kigali to train emerging filmmakers.

One is the up-and-coming screenwriter-director, Ndimbira Shenge, whose works have been shown in Kigali, at the Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles, the Afrikamera Film Festival in Berlin and at others. Similar to Dusabejambo, Shenge’s films tell the stories of women on the margins of Rwanda’s conservative society.

“People always ask me why my films are about sex,” she says, discussing the response to her work.

It’s a few days after the public screening of two of her films on the rooftop of Kigali’s community centre, Impact Hub, where the theme for the evening was Taboo Topics in Motions. Her short movies were about a woman filmmaker who is infatuated with her female colleague, titled She, and a documentary about a young woman’s life as a sex worker, Hora Mama.

“People are ashamed to speak about sex in public [in Rwanda], some thinking it’s not our culture,” she says about those who view homosexuality as unRwandan or unAfrican.

The 26-year-old is currently developing a web documentary series about Rwanda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) community, scheduled for release in July. Even though homosexuality is not criminalised in the country, Shenge says “coming out” can result in marginalisation and discrimination.

And, because of this, she faces challenges when casting people in her series. Most are reluctant to reveal their identity. “We are planning to tell the story of six people but so far have only found two who want to appear in the show.”

But she hopes that the stigma attached to sexual identities that are not heterosexual will eventually fall away as public dialogue on taboo topics is encouraged.

Reflecting on Rwanda’s cinema, Shenge says watching films by the likes of Dusabejambo assures her “that, in five to 10 years, [in] Rwanda we will have some of the best women filmmakers because we are working so hard”.

Kabera chronicles the gradual increase in the number of films — from shorts to documentaries and features — produced by Rwandans across gender. “If you wanted to make a film in the old days [after the genocide], you would have to wait for people to come from Berlin or France with equipment.

“But, as the digital revolution spurs on, people can now go out there and make their own videos, produce great photography and film. It’s become more affordable and

For Rwandan-born screenwriter and director Anisia Uzeyman, who is based in the United States, the affordability and accessibility of technology today enabled her to create her acclaimed debut feature film, Dreamstates, in which she stars alongside a celebrated poet and her husband, Saul Williams. It was filmed entirely on an iPhone.

The film, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year, is a love story about two people who first meet in dreams before meeting in reality while travelling by road across the US.

“I left Rwanda as a child in the 1980s to get an education and an easier life in Europe. I came back in 1993 to see my mother for the last time,” says Uzeyman, who later studied at the National School of Theatre in Rennes, France. “In 1996, I came back to Rwanda and since then I have been returning as someone who is bonded to this land.”

She recently returned as the director of photography for Williams’s upcoming sci-fi short film, In the Wires, which was shot in Rwanda.

As the opportunities for the country’s filmmakers increase and the industry grows, those in Rwanda still face challenges. Ashley Harden and Ann-Elise Francis, of the independent US think-tank Council on Foreign Relations, in 2012 released their findings on the country’s film scene, writing: “Rwanda’s film sector is still in its infancy. It started only in 2003 with the founding of the Rwanda Cinema Centre, and it has struggled to expand in the face of legal and tax barriers and a culture unfamiliar with film. But, despite these barriers, Rwandans are passionate about growing the industry.”

The lack of a film culture has limited Hillywood’s growth. The limitations include a lack of government funding for potential filmmakers to train in the field and little to no business skills or financial guidance.

Referring to one of Kigali’s only commercial cine complexes, Century Cinema, which opened in 2013, Harden and Francis write: “‘Going to the movies’ is simply not a typical leisure activity in Rwanda … [and the] distribution of Rwandan films through television is also minimal.”

Looking south, Kabera reiterates the findings. “Unlike South Africa, where you have the National Film and Video Foundation and other government support structures, we don’t have that. The Rwandan government tries, but they have not yet created a mechanism for funding film.”

For aspiring filmmakers such as 19-year-old Mugisha Pamella, proving herself in the industry is what she has learnt to do herself, she says.

“There are a lot of people who [shudder] when they hear the words, ‘a girl with a camera’. It’s still a rare sight. Women actors and presenters are more common.”

Pamella recently graduated from the Mopas Film Academy in Kigali and is getting started on her career as an editor and cinematographer.

Rwanda’s universities do not yet offer film courses, which is left to private institutions such as Mopas, which has short courses on subjects such as animation, lighting and sound.

Housed in makeshift classrooms in a renovated home, the Mopas Film Academy opened in July last year and one of its aims is to empower women in the industry, even giving a discount to women students.

Seated in one of the classrooms at Mopas where she is currently an intern assisting with film editing and shadowing filmmakers, Pamella says about her future: “One day, I want to have a company with only women where [we] will train girls to become filmmakers. But, for now, I want to tell my fellow girls, don’t be afraid to get behind the camera.”

Stefanie Jason travelled to Rwanda as a fellow of the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Great Lakes reporting initiative