I Spent 10 Days In Rwanda Helping Build A Film Community — Here’s What I Saw

by Michael Radford


Welcome To Hillywood

Day 1: July 21, 2015

“Welcome to Hillywood,” the sign proclaims as you leave the airport.

Actually, as you squint towards the hills from the balcony of the hotel room it’s not difficult to imagine that we are in Hollywood.

The shape of the hills is much the same, even the vegetation…. is that a little smog I see in the distance? Or is it the mist on the hills where the gorillas live?

Lake Muhazi in the east of Rwanda

The hotel is modest. Everything here is modest. But none of that matters one little bit. In fact it is utterly charming.

The thing that really strikes you as you enter Kigali, is the real, genuine, warmth of people here. It’s an African thing, I’d forgotten.

I haven’t really been in this part of the world since White Mischief 25 years ago.

When I remarked on it to Eric, filmmaker, founder of the Kwetu Film Institute and the moving spirit behind this festival, and indeed the nascent film industry in Rwanda, he said they need to be nice in this country given it’s bloody recent history.

And it’s true.

There is an urge here to do something, to show what is possible, that Rwanda’s recent past is behind them.

They need a film industry to express themselves, to help reinforce their national identity and show what is possible here with a little investment.

It’s all very new and lacking in finance. But there is hunger, and where there is hunger, new talent emerges.

I’m about to plunge into playing my albeit small and too brief part, for The Academy, in encouraging this. Trying to show how this is possible from a creative point of view: meet a few people, make a few friends.

I asked Eric what kind of films people wanted to see here, what filmmakers wanted to make. His instant reply was, “Comedies.”

I’m sure that’s true, as much as I’m sure it’s true they need to create their own heroes.

The Genocide Memorial

Day 2: July 22, 2015

Today we went to visit the Genocide Memorial.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by a monument. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this.

What shines through is that, despite the appalling tragedy this country has undergone — a million people brutally massacred — somehow they have managed to forgive.

Not to forget, but to understand that what happened will never happen again if the country can reconcile itself, and the two sides manage to live together in forgiveness and harmony.

Entrance to Genocide Memorial Kigali

This is happening now, despite the past.

Eric, the founding force and energy behind this Institute told me he lost 32 members of his family.

The girl on reception at the hotel was riddled with bullets when she was five, and somehow survived.

The stories are endless.

But there is a genuine desire for peace and a new national identity to be forged where there are no Hutu, no Tutsis, just Rwandans.

Everyone agrees the way to forge that national identity is to create a film industry which reflects the national character and the story.

There are many stories here which, if they could be brought to the screen, would feed these more-than-deserving people with a real affirmation of themselves.

They are already doing much for themselves, building a film institute where the youth can learn how to make good films.

They lack money, even in an economy which is beginning to burgeon.

It may be said that to build a film industry here is a luxury. But for the Rwandas it’s an absolute necessity.

That they could do with some help in order to make it happen more quickly is evident.

They have already received enough to build the first part of the theater/auditorium from a generous donation from the Rosenthals.

But they need more.

Kwetu Film Institute Auditorium

They need a relatively small amount of money to finish the investment in Film Training, they need people to come out here to help them develop the creative skills, so that Rwanda cinema goes to the forefront of African cinema and becomes a beacon of excellence.

But above all they need to know that they are part of the film community.

They are hungry for this, they want to do it. And they will.

Which is why the support of The Academy is so vitally important.

A Stunning Location

Day 3: July 23, 2015

I had breakfast today with Hubert Ruzibiza of the Rwandan development board. He heads services development, looking for investment.

Kwetu Film Institute Poster

I suggested they should think about a CGI facility, given the amount they've invested in IT training.

But they also need an infrastructure, both to make their own films and to build themselves a center of film production to attract foreign investment.

And they need a film commission to promote the country as a location.

As a location, it is stunning. They have the magnificent Lake Kivu, the size of an inland sea, they have the oldest untouched tropical jungle in the world, they have mountains and volcanoes, they have savannah grasslands with wild animals.

They have all of Africa, and it’s a small country. Everything is within easy driving distance.

It is also a country which is absolutely secure. Not in your face secure, but just safe.

Nobody wants to see violence here any more.

Weaver bird nets, Lake Muhazi

Everybody on Saturday morning, from the richest to the poorest goes to umuganda: translated that means that everybody spends three hours sweeping the streets.

Everybody.

From an apocalyptic division comes a united community….

I saw my first movie here today, a documentary about a young girl in Kigali who had fallen into the vicious circle of poverty, childbearing and prostitution, made by one of the female students at the Institute.

My First Master Class

Day 4: July 24, 2015

I gave my first Master Class today, on screenwriting using The Merchant of Venice and Il Postino as a basis.

Everyone was very attentive, especially the two kids (eight and nine years old) who, slightly unexpectedly, were there with their mother.

The family actually hailed from Atlanta and — like many Rwandans from around the world — decided to come back and help rebuild the country.

It’s very moving what’s going on.

In the evening I went off to the main screening venue at the Portofino Hotel, a temporary home whilst the permanent auditorium is constructed.

There, on an inflatable screen, we watched the documentary on the Black Panther movement, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

It’s part of a program of films brought here by the Pan African Festival in Los Angeles and selected by Asantewa Olatunji.

I had forgotten how powerful these guys were.

Showing films at the Festival

This was not a protest movement, it was a movement of guys and girls who said, “This is revolution, we’re going to take over.”

It was exhilarating to watch.

There was no humility, just a determination to change the world.

The film got a standing ovation from the audience.

I spent the evening in a very dubious Indian restaurant in the middle of Kigali, chatting with Ayuko Babu (an ex- Panther himself) and Asa about the LA Festival and the help they're giving to programming here in Rwanda.

My Second Class

Day 5: July 25, 2015

Breakfast has become my favorite meal of the day.

God, the coffee is good.

They have a machine in the bar/cafe which roasts the fresh beans, grinds them and then churns out the best cappuccino I’ve tasted for a long time.

Then there is Rwanda yogurt — to die for, honey straight from the mountains, and fruit.

Anyone ever eaten a tree tomato?

It’s like a mixture between a tomato and a passion fruit.

Did my next master class today on directing, and there was a pretty good turn out.

I got a little choked up about Il Postino because it is the anniversary of the death of Massimo Troisi, my star and close friend.

There were a lot of questions from the students, desperate to find ways of making their movies, thirsting for knowledge of how to go about it.

Watched Carol Bash’s documentary film on Louise Mitchell, the jazz musician, composer and arranger, made for PBS. Again, brought here by the Pan African Festival.

Tomorrow we go out into the small villages in the country, with the inflatable screen and a bunch of movies. Should be interesting.

Meanwhile, the Kigali music festival starts. There’s a rock band from New York staying at the hotel. More on that later!

Not Enough Time In The Day

Day 6: July 26, 2015

Today turned out differently than I imagined.

We didn't go out into the villages with the screen. We drove East and ended up on Lake Muhazi, at the end of a fertile valley full of bananas.

Sat and had a beer and watched the kingfishers diving and the sun setting.

Came back and couldn't face the rock concert so we'll be going tonight.

The band, by the way is called Quantum Split and is headed by Soleil Laurent.

Michael Radford with Eric Kabera
There isn't enough money for this festival.

They need a full-time programmer, a proper central venue, and some more staff.

It’s all going well, but slowly. Everybody is proud of what they're doing and working hard.

They also need for the film industry a film commission to promote the country, a small film facility (post production, CGI, and a studio space), a couple of tax breaks, and they could be a serious player in Africa.

The problem at the moment is that Eric does everything, because we are at the beginning.

But nobody can do all that. There isn’t enough time in the day.

Malaria

Day 7: July 27, 2015

Today, I set out to see the doctor down the road in a small clinic, with what I thought was a stomach bug.

Turned out to be malaria.

Apparently strains are appearing which are immune to all the pills you take.

I am one of two people who have this version so far.

Luckily, if you kill off the parasite within three days, you're free and clear.

The doctor said to eat even more honey fruit and yogurt.

Fine by me.

I didn't feel great, so didn't make the concert.

Quantum Split from New York rocked the audience and so did the Kenyan singer Sauti Sol, who is now number one in Africa.

Nor, sadly, did I make the trip to the gorillas.

Taking Movies To People Without Cinema

Day 8: July 28, 2015

Last night we drove for two-and-a-half hours up into the hills near the Ugandan border named Gicumbi.

The object was to take films to the people who have no access to cinemas.

Inflatable screening — Byumba on the Ugandan border

The method is a huge inflatable screen which goes up in the middle of the town. This is an essential part of the Kwetu Institute program.

Sometimes the audiences reach as many as 5,000 people in a night.

Two memorable films: one about a one-legged racing cyclist, which could definitely be a YouTube hit if nothing else.

The guy is extraordinary. He races (and wins) against able bodied athletes: no prosthetics, just one mighty leg.

He’s also very charismatic.

There’s a move on to try and raise money for a special prosthetic racing leg.

I've urged Eric to get this onto the Internet.

The other movie was the story of a guy, who, when he was six, during the genocide, was wrapped in a mat, bound and set on fire.

When he didn't burn to death immediately, the man who did it to him
sat on him to try and increase the torture.

He lost all of one arm and half of another.

He survived, but was so starved that he tried to eat what was left of his burnt fingers.

The boy is now a young man and, once again, holds no bitterness and rancour. He just gets on with life.

With immense charm he recounts all this, whilst showing how he writes, operates a computer, eats, and lives a normal life despite the cruelty that was inflicted on him.

When the film finished, the whole town burst out cheering.

Checked out with the doctor this morning to find out why I'm not feeling sicker.

The answer is that I will, but if we catch it now, the malaria will be over by the time I get home.

As I got Dengue fever when I was in Kenya making White Mischief, I feel I've earned my stripes in Africa.

A Discussion About Taste In Movies

Day 9: July 29, 2015

Spoke long into the evening with Jean Pierre and Jackie, brother and sister, and Jean- Pierre’s wife and children.

Jean Pierre is an advertising executive who has a coffee farm near Lake Kivu.

Jackie runs a tourist business.

They co-own the cafe at the Kwetu Institute.

At the Hillywood Cafe

They were brought up in Kenya as refugees from the civil war and genocide in Rwanda, and like many exiled Rwandans, have come back to rebuild the country.

They are utterly charming, very cultured, and we talked about what I was doing here, and why.

I said I'd come to show films, give master classes and so on.

They are all familiar with American and European Cinema: they had loved Il Postino, and even more, “The Merchant of Venice.”

They had all seen White Mischief, but most of all we talked about Nigerian cinema: “Nollywood,” as it is known, is the dominating cultural influence here in Africa.

Why ? Well, the production is huge in TV and in cinema because, rather like American, Indian, Chinese cinema and TV the local audience is huge.

The population of Nigeria is huge.

What they do is very basic popular cinema, soaps, copies of popular movies from other cultures.

But the context is African, and the cinemas are packed.

This is also a very religious community here as well.

The two young girls said they didn’t like American movies
because of the foul language, and the sex.

They like the Nigerian films, where the couples hug, and hug all the way through the movie!

They recounted the story of the first West African movie to break big in East Africa.

It happened to be Ghanaian, not Nigerian, and it was called Love in an African Brew.

People bought tickets months ahead and traveled hundreds of miles
just to see this movie.

It spoke to them.

What has this to do with what I’m doing here?

Well, I think that the documentary area of the film institute is handled well. It is still in an early form, but the subject matter is fascinating.

Poster on wall of a garment shop, Kigali

The technical instruction is going well. There is a lot of help from Germany, first instigated by Volker Shclondorff, and the U.S. plays its part (for instance Christian Epps, a lighting designer, is out here giving classes).

But what’s really necessary is some in-depth creative input from writers and directors, encouraging the students here to find ways to tell stories, but stories that are set firmly in African culture.

To find out what makes a Rwandan laugh, or cry.

To form an industry that can, if not rival, then at least compete with the all pervasive big industry of Africa, the Nigerian one.

And it is big, believe me!

An Introduction To Charlie Chaplin

Day 10: July 30, 2015

We drove for three hours up into the region of Ruhengeri, where the volcanoes rise to 15,000 feet and the gorillas live in the forests where Dian Fossey used to work.

Unfortunately, I had no time to visit the gorillas, but did put up the inflatable screen in Musanze, the local town.

We showed Africa United, Eric’s film about some kids trying to get to South Africa for the World Cup, which is actually very funny.

We then showed a comedy made by one of the students about a couple of village boys who go to the city (Kigali) and try to survive.

It had the audience howling with laughter, firstly because it was about the country versus the city, but also because the gags were pure Chaplin.

Charlie Chaplin films are completely unknown here, but we did an experiment of showing them in the cafe at the Film Institute and they were an instant success.

We left the town in the middle of the night and drove down to the Serena Hotel on the edge of Lake Kivu on the border with the Congo.

Michael Radford and Eric Kabera in a half built auditorium

The lake is utterly beautiful and a great place to rest up for a moment, but the next day I went down to the border crossing where you find Africa at it’s most raw.

Rwanda is a rich country compared with the Congo.

Hundreds and hundreds of people, mainly women, cross over and try to barter or sell goods for a few pennies.

Then they will take what they can from Rwanda and try and sell it on the other side.

For example, cans of tap water. It is undrinkable, but better than anything they have on the other side.

It is quite a lesson to see this world clinging on to survive.

Went back to Kigali, went to see the doctor who gave me the all clear on my malaria, and flew home.

I was extremely happy to have been able to do my small bit for these wonderful and engaging people.

I do not know who got more out of it, them or me, but long may the Academy continue this program.


Director Michael Radford (Il Postino, The Merchant of Venice, Nineteen Eighty-Four, White Mischief) journeyed to Rwanda to represent The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences at the Rwanda Film Festival.

It was a follow up to the visit made several years ago by a delegation of Academy members to East Africa as part of the Academy’s international outreach efforts.

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