Rwanda Devises Big Plans to Build Its Own Film Industry: "We Have a Chance to Tell Our Stories"

Berlin Film Festival
'Imfura' is the first Rwandan film to win the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival

A quarter-century after a brutal genocide devastated the nation, Rwanda is pulling out all the stops to create a viable film and television business.

Rwanda, it is fair to say, is not on anyone's list of top film locations worldwide. But that might be about to change. The government of President Paul Kagame and powerful players in the country's nascent audiovisual industry have thrown their weight behind transforming this Eastern African nation into a hub for film and television production, both local and international.

This week, in the capital city of Kigali, the Rwanda Development Board held the Kigali Audiovisual Forum, a first-of-its-kind conference bringing together producers, film commissioners, financiers and government officials from across Africa and the world, to discuss and debate how to create a viable African film industry.

Judging by the packed auditorium in the Kigali Conference Center for the event, which ran Nov. 21-23, the forum is answering a pent-up demand. And, judging by the response of international attendees, it could prove the first step towards changing the image of this nation, so often linked with the brutal genocide of 1994.

“It's really been amazing,” said producer Mickey Gooch Jr. (The Vanishing), who arrived in Rwanda via Ghana, where he just wrapped shooting on Rise, one of the three films his Kodiak Pictures shingle is making together with Will Smith and Marc Forster's German-based group Telepool. “I think people have a completely wrong image of Rwanda as maybe dangerous or unstable. From what I've seen, I'd definitely want to come back to work here, especially if the government can get the right incentives in place.”

Incentives, in the form of a tax break for film production, was among the top topics of discussion at the inaugural forum. “We definitely must make this happen,” said Rwandan film commissioner Aimee Umutoni, a sentiment apparently shared by the Kigali government. Though no new initiatives were announced at the forum, the Rwanda Development Board has pledged to take “concrete steps” before next year's event to kickstart the local industry

Currently, Rwanda's film industry barely warrants the name. Compared to the booming business in South Africa — one of the few African countries to both offer a generous tax incentive to foreign productions as well as substantial subsidies for local filmmakers — or the bustling commercial industry in Nigeria — known as Nollywood — Rwanda's film business is in its infancy. Movies are getting made — this year 27-year-old Rwandan filmmaker Samuel Ishimwe became the first Rwandan to win the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, for his short Imfura — but the country still lacks many of components necessary to sustain an industry. Local producers complained of the lack of a viable distribution market, with few cinemas and local television and online platforms unwilling to pay for home-grown productions.

But Ramadan Suleman, a veteran South African producer and director (Rights of Passage, Zulu Love Letter), said Rwanda was already ahead of most African nations when it came to the most precious asset for a viable industry: stability.

“For the last 24 years, since the genocide, (they) have had stability, they have had good governance,” he said. “Traveling around Kigali, I didn't think I was in Africa — it looks like Beverly Hills ...They have the opportunity to do what South Africa has done: create a film industry, but to do it without making the mistakes we did, by balancing government incentives with entrepreneurial spirit.”

For Eric Kabera, the Rwandan producer of Nick Hughes's 100 Days and Debs Paterson's cross-over comedy Africa United, the forum is a sign that Rwanda is, finally, getting the chance to tell its own stories and to project a new image of the country to the world. “Till now, most of the Rwandan stories in film were being told by Europeans and Americans, my own films are financed by Switzerland, by France, by Germany,”  Kabera said. “It is a form of neo-colonialism. But it's our time now."

It was a sentiment shared by the crowd of Rwandan producers, directors and screenwriters that packed the inaugural Kigali Audiovisual Forum.

“I spent 30 years abroad before coming back here, to my homeland, in 1994,” said Albert Rudatsimburwa, the CEO of local broadcast group Contact Media. “I've seen the rebuilding of this nation and the amazing things we have achieved. Now we have a chance to tell our stories. And we will.”