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Guest Post: Film and Development in Rwanda

by Guest Blogger for Terra Lawson-Remer
September 7, 2012

Authors Ashley Harden (center) and Ann-Elise Francis (right) meet with an aspiring Rwandan filmmaker at Bourbon Café in Kigali, Rwanda, August 18, 2012 (Courtesy Ashley Harden). Authors Ashley Harden (center) and Ann-Elise Francis (right) meet with an aspiring Rwandan filmmaker at Bourbon Café in Kigali, Rwanda, August 18, 2012 (Courtesy Ashley Harden).

This is a guest post by Ann-Elise Francis, special assistant to the vice president in CFR’s Meetings and Membership department, and Ashley Harden, research associate in CFR’s Women and Foreign Policy Program. In the post they share findings from their recent trip to study Rwanda’s nascent film industry.

Films have always been seen as a tool to create social change. They can also be a major driver of private sector growth. In the United States, the film industry supports 2.1 million jobs and pays approximately $143 billion in annual wages. Film industries in Africa—including South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria—are also significant. In Nigeria, “Nollywood” is the country’s second-largest employer after the agricultural sector. It makes more than 2,000 films a year and generates roughly $250 million in revenues by exposing foreign markets to Nigerian-made films. As a result, support for the film industry is growing on the agendas on many African governments, including Rwanda’s.

Rwanda’s film industry has the potential to create jobs and generate capital, whether projects are funded by foreign production companies or Rwandan filmmakers. The industry has already attracted international investment, spurred entrepreneurship, and aided the growth of Rwanda’s tourism sector. Films made by Rwandans have received international acclaim at many prestigious film festivals, such as Tribeca and Durban. Through film, Rwandan artists try to reclaim narratives presented about their country. Some explore the lasting effects of collective trauma generated by the 1994 genocide, while others focus on the promise of the future that an economically competitive Rwanda could bring.

Rwanda’s film sector is still in its infancy. It started only in 2003 with the founding of the Rwanda Cinema Center, 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. Dozens of production companies have sprung up in Kigali. A few technical training centers have been established to develop and enhance filmmakers’ skills. Private organizations such as Kwetu Film Institute and Almond Tree Films Rwanda, and government agencies such as the Workforce Development Authority, have already trained dozens of aspiring Rwandan filmmakers. The Ministry of Sports and Culture has also begun to establish a Film Commission. But more needs to be done.

As part of a research project for the Business Council for Peace (Bpeace), we spent almost three weeks in Rwanda, interviewing film industry workers, government officials, and film distributors to analyze the industry’s potential to create jobs and promote economic growth. Many hope that the industry could help Rwanda’s government and people create a new national identity and culture that challenges the automatic association between Rwanda and genocide. By exposing the world to a stable, modern, and hopeful Rwanda through film, international investment and tourism could be encouraged. However, four major obstacles stand in the way.

First, aspiring film workers need affordable, long-term training programs to gain technical skills and develop talents in editing, cinematography, sound, lighting, and related fields. Given the cost and limited availability of these courses, training is out of reach for most people. (For example, a three-month certificate course from Kwetu Film Institute costs 300,000 Rwandan francs, roughly $500, a significant sum in a county where the GDP per capita is $560).

To help with expenses, some short-term intensive training programs receive funding from the Rwandan government, as well as the U.S. State Department. But these offerings are inconsistent. Moreover, existing programs offer no more than crash courses that make it difficult for students to master the basics and build higher levels of expertise. Nor do schools and universities fill the gap. No Rwandan university offers film education as a two- or four-year degree.

Second, while technical training programs are essential, filmmakers also lack business skills and struggle to finance, produce, and distribute their films. Marketing, pre- and post-production, and finance are learned on-the-job, without much guidance. Curricula combining technical and business skills related to the film industry are needed.

Third, Rwanda lacks local film infrastructure. There exists no union or film commission to encourage collaboration or give guidance on legal issues, such as copyright laws, taxes, and national and international distribution. Vendor lists of the best sound, camera, or casting directors do not exist. Work is found through word of mouth, making the industry difficult to navigate for outsiders, especially foreign production companies hoping to hire Rwandan film crews.

Fourth, Rwandans have limited access to films made in their own country. While Rwandan filmmakers have some success reaching regional and international markets through film festivals and their personal networks, the local market remains untapped. Many filmmakers ascribe this to the lack of a local film culture. There is only one movie theater in Kigali, and it is forced to show popular soccer matches to stay afloat. A few more theaters are slated to open, but it is uncertain if they will generate enough revenue. “Going to the movies” is simply not a typical leisure activity in Rwanda. Distribution of Rwandan films through television is also minimal. Only 6 percent of Rwandans own a TV, and Rwanda’s only TV station, the government-run Rwanda TV (RTV), cannot afford to buy content from local filmmakers.

This lack of exposure contributes to an overall low respect for creative arts produced by Rwandans. Post-conflict reconstruction and development in the country has mostly focused on sectors related to science and technology. Arts education and funding has been small, if not nonexistent.

Film may not seem like a priority, and basic needs should still come first for those who lack them, but Rwanda’s government and private sector should support the film industry as a longer-term engine of development. Unlike other African countries, Rwanda has been unable to capitalize on the film industry’s potential to produce income and jobs. In order to achieve this, more frequent and higher-level technical training programs are needed alongside business courses tailored to the film industry. Vendor lists or registries of skilled workers should be created and maintained. Realizing the industry’s potential to boost Rwanda’s already-fast growth and changing international image will likely require a long-term investment, but it promises to be worthwhile.

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  • Posted by Scott Wayne

    Dear Ashley and Ann-Elise,
    I am assisting the USAID-sponsored Nyungwe Nziza Project in Rwanda with, among other things, media relations. We are organizing with RDB a media trip for the end of April. One of the journalists who will be participating is a documentary producer based in Los Angeles. For possible articles during the trip and perhaps future documentaries involving Rwanda, she would like to meet local counterparts. Could you point her towards some local film producers, ideally ones who may have done some work in Nyungwe National Park and/or are potentially interested? Thanks in advance for your suggestions.
    Best regards,
    Scott Wayne
    President, SW Associates
    Sustainable Development through Tourism
    Washington, DC
    http://www.sw-associates.net

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