An edited version of this article appeared in Mail & Guardian (24 March 2017)

The closing eve of this year’s Fespaco, Africa’s most symbolic film festival, should be remembered as an historic one. When the weeklong Pan African Film and Television Festival (Fespaco) drew to an end 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, in honour of the country’s revolutionary leader and former president. Celebrating films by Africans made mainly in Africa, Fespaco awarded the accolade 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, Clementine, who had no formal film training (but would later gain experience working with filmmaker), was embarking on her career and exposed to news reports such as those stating that between March 2007 and October of the following year, 50 people with albinism had been killed 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.”

film-still-1-a-place-for-myself

A week after meeting at Kigali’s Hilltop Hotel, where she spoke about her visually moving film that’s in equal parts heartbreaking as it is empowering, Dusabejambo also scooped the La Chance prize at Fespaco. This making Dusabejambo one of the first women filmmakers from Rwanda to win major awards at the festival. And highlighting not only her work but the growing tide of female filmmakers from Rwanda, collectively breaking into the global film scene. A wave of women filmmakers creating work in a nascent and still very male-dominated Rwandan cinema; telling the stories that they want to and from their perspective. Narratives that range from anything between sexual identity, to the consequences of the genocide or 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 – as an ode to the country’s rolling hills – Rwanda’s movie scene emerged in the early 2000s as the country was rebuilding from the 1994 genocide and civil war; which left close to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead in 100 days, an estimated 500 000 women raped, scores of people displaced and the country’s’ infrastructure severely devastated.

“When the film industry started in Rwanda, it was 99% male,” says filmmaker Erica 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 trade,” he says about initiatives such Rwandan Women Panorama, which showed films made by women and was facilitated by the Swedish Development Agency. Two years after 100 Days premiered, Kabera established Kwetu Film Institute in Kigali, to upskill emerging film practitioners.

One such filmmaker is up and coming screenwriter-director Ndimbira Shenge, whose works have shown across Kigali, the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles and the Afrikamera Film Festival in Berlin, and more. Similarly to Dusabejambo, Shenge creates films that 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 responses to her work. It’s a couple of days after the public screening of her films on the rooftop of Kigali’s community centre, Impact Hub, where the theme for the evening is “Taboo Topics in Motions”. And her short movies – one 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 – make the cut.

Ndimbira Shenge

Ndimbira Shenge

“People are ashamed to speak about sex in public [in Rwanda], some thinking it’s not our culture,” she says, arguing against those who view homosexuality as un-Rwandan or un-African. The 26-year-old is currently developing a web documentary series about Rwanda’s LGBTI community, scheduled to release in July.

Despite the fact that homosexuality is not criminalised in the country, Shenge says “coming out” in Rwanda could mean facing marginalisation or discrimination. And because of this, Shenge has met challenges casting people in her series, who are not 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 Shenge says she is hopeful that stigmas attached to sexual identities that are not heterosexual will fall away, the more public dialogue on “taboo” topics are encouraged.

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

And indeed they are, as filming legend 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’d 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 accessible.”

For Rwandan-born, US-based screenwriter and director Anisia Uzeyman, the affordability and accessibility of technology today, has helped her create her acclaimed debut feature film. Dreamstates, in which she stars alongside celebrated poet and her husband Saul Williams, was shot entirely on iPhone.

Anisia Uzeyman (Pic: Katina Parker)

Anisia Uzeyman (Pic: Katina Parker)

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 the actor and filmmaker, who later studied at the National School of Theater 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.” Uzeyman has recently come back to the country as the director of photography on Williams’s upcoming sci-fi short film, In The Wires, which was shot in Rwanda.

As the opportunities for Rwanda’s filmmakers in the diaspora, like Uzeyman, and at home increase and the industry grows, Rwanda’s film practitioners still experience challenges. Ashley Harden and Ann-Elise Francis of independent US think tank Council on Foreign Relations, in 2012 released 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 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.”

The Francis and Harden highlight obstacles for Hillywood, such as the the lack of government funding for potential filmmakers to train in the field; little to no business skills or financial guidance for filmmakers, and their inability to fund film projects; and Rwanda’s local film industry being untapped as a result of the lack of film culture in the country.

Mughisha Pamella (left) and Bernard Ishimwe. (Pic: Gabriel Dusabe)

Mughisha Pamella (left) and Bernard Ishimwe. (Pic: Gabriel Dusabe)

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

Looking further south, Kabera reiterates the findings, saying: “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.”

It’s really hard to get funding for young filmmakers, says Dusajambo. “We don’t have a cinema culture in Rwanda because the industry is so new. So in this business you have to prove yourself and your place, especially as a woman.”

For aspiring filmmakers such as 19-year-old Mugisha Pamella, proving oneself in the industry is what she’s learnt to do, 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, has freshly graduated from Mopas Film Academy in Kigali, and is getting started on her career as an editor and cinematographer.

Mugisha Pamella. (Pic: Gabriel Dusabe)

As Rwanda’s universities do not yet offer film courses, private institutions like Mopas offer aspirant filmmakers short courses where they can take up subjects like animation, lighting and sound. Housed in a makeshift classroom and renovated home, Mopas Film Academy opened in July last year and is focused on empowering women in the industry – even giving a discount to its female learners when they enrol.

Seated in one of the classrooms at Mopas – where she is currently interning (assisting with film edits and shadow filmmakers) – Mugisha looks to the future, saying, “One day, I want to have a company with only women where 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.”