Guerrillas in the midst: Films tell local stories

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BERLIN -- The Eritrean-set movie "Heart of Fire," which unspools in Competition here Thursday, is a flag-bearer of a new brand of "embedded filmmaking" on display in Berlin.

These films are characterized by Western filmmakers working in often-inaccessible or little-exposed regions, using local actors and working in the local language. The resulting films provide what at first glance seems like a "local" vision from places where no local directors are making movies, for the simple reason there is no cinematographic culture or infrastructure.

"There is a trend for films from regions where there is nothing to speak of in terms of an independent film industry," said Thomas Hailer, director of the Generation sidebar. "There are young guys traveling there, finding stories, going home and raising a budget going back there. They're not doing the kind of film like the French did for decades where they go into the former colonies and shoot a film with all these funky black people and in the middle is the noble French doctor or whatever. Those were French films using the colonies as a decor."

Italian director Luigi Falorni called on his background as a documentary filmmaker to go in country for "Heart of Fire," which is based on child soldier-turned-singer Senait Mehari's best-selling autobiography. The director cast the film at an Eritrean refugee camp.

"I didn't want this to be a Hollywood look at Africa -- like a 'Hotel Rwanda,' where Don Cheadle flies in to play the lead role," Falorni said. "Authenticity was of the utmost importance. It was essential that people acting in the movie had been through the war, knew what had happened and would tell me if anything wasn't accurate."

Falorni said it is "sort of a scandal" that a white European made "Heart" instead of a director from Eritrea. "But there is no film infrastructure in Eritrea and, to be honest, no freedom of speech either. So it would have been impossible."

Australian director Benjamin Gilmour shot his Forum title "Son of a Lion" on an altogether different scale. He worked alone or with a local camera assistant for eight months in Pakistan's remote and lawless Northwest Frontier region to produce his story about a young Pashtun boy in a village of gun-makers on a budget of only $20,000. (The Australian Film Commission later put in around $400,000 to complete postproduction.)

"For a big film crew to go in there was impossible. The Pakistani military would travel with you and the Pashtuns hate the military; you would not succeed," said Gilmour, who describes his film as "guerilla filmmaking at its purest."

"It took a long time. The Pashtuns notoriously don't trust outsiders so for the first six months I didn't even pull out the camera. It was just about building relationships," said the former paramedic, who gained his first cinematic experience working as a unit nurse on sets. Gilmour arrived with a script but ended up changing it radically as he worked with the locals. "They ended up running the show. Sometimes I thought that the film was directing itself. But in a sense, that is now what people like about it -- that in a way it feels like an observational documentary. The action is just playing out naturally."

The Generation 14plus picture "Munyurangabo" is another Africa-set film in stark contrast to previous Hollywood takes on the continent. The film tells the story of two friends from either side of the tribal divide in Rwanda, and was directed by New York-based Lee Isaac Chung, who gained privileged access to the country through his wife's work as a volunteer there. "Because of her we had a lot of friends on the ground who trusted us. It allowed for us to have constant interaction with people in their homes. Being part of the community changes the film; we didn't come in with this foreign concept," Chung said. The film is the first feature to be made in the local language, and used local actors. "The crew were students that we trained," said the director, who shot on 16mm for less than $40,000.

So have these films managed to avoid taking a colonial view? "That's something we were very conscious of from the beginning," said Sam Anderson, co-writer and co-producer of "Munyurangabo." "I feel that we did, but the best judge would be a Rwandan audience."

Gilmour said he, too, was worried about providing a "white man's" view. "I had a great response from Muslim audiences at the Marrakesh Film Festival," he said. "None of them could believe that a non-Muslim had made this film. That's an indication to me that I didn't leave too much of a Western mark on it. But if a Pashtun had made this film it may not have traveled as far it has."

This type of filmmaking may even be going some way towards fostering an indigenous cinema in visited countries. "A lot of (Rwandan) guys who worked on our movie are now making their own shorts," Anderson said.
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