Closing the industry circle: East Africa

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The cast and crew of Amil Shivji’s T-Junction (Image credit: T-Junction Facebook page)

After spending more and more time in East Africa, and meeting some of the amazing people driving the regional film industry there, it is heartening to see the rapid developments that are taking place to close the industry circle from production to consumption.

This production cycle starts young in East Africa with a host of programmes operating in Kenya to teach school children as young eight or nine to make films; there is vibrant and dynamic culture of production and learning.

Professor Simon Peter of the University of Nairobi, with support from various governmental departments, runs an extensive programme in literally dozens of schools across the country where young people are encouraged to write and produce their own films. His programme also focuses on teaching-the-teachers and he is a pro-active champion for filmmaking in the region.

This year, over 30 of these young filmmakers will travel to Zanzibar to take part in the Zanzibar International Film Festival’s first annual film school programme that will see the screening of a dozen student films and a full schedule of workshops for these young filmmakers.

This dynamic environment also sees players like the Riverwood Ensemble Filmmakers Association, an organisation that unites over 300 local filmmakers to market and sell their works collectively. Headed by Mwaniki Mageria, the organisation recently hosted the Riverwood Academy Awards, an annual event that celebrates Kenyan film. He has plans to expand the awards into a screening festival, and to create a small-scale cinema circuit so that these films can enjoy wider audiences.

The Award Ceremony received a boost this year from the Kenya Film Classification Board that sponsored the event to the tune of approximately USD25 000.

East Africa’s answers to Nollywood, Swahilihood and Bongo Movies, have also seen a massive increase in commercial interest. These rapidly and cheaply produced movies have gained audiences across Africa. Many of the early practitioners of this style are now moving on in their careers and producing more traditional feature films, and the Tanzanian film industry is also seeing a spike in the quality of productions.

Well known Tanzanian filmmaker Amil Shivji is currently finishing his latest feature film, T-Junction that will, in fact, be the Opening Night Film at this year’s Zanzibar International Film Festival.

Another recent Bongo Movie production (that will also be screened at ZIFF) directed by Nicholas Marwa and produced by Going Bongo’s Ernest Napoleon, Kiumeni is representative of the new breed of Bongo Movies. It has been screening at cinemas around Tanzania and is an action drama that has been hailed for its authentic storyline and high production value.

With Kiswahili spoken by over 200 million people, the Bongo Movie industry claims its place as the second largest on the continent, with over 500 productions annually. The increased focus on production quality and storytelling is now starting to see these films screened at cinemas and being picked up by commercial broadcasters.

The Rwandan film industry has also been making waves recently, with Fespaco recently awarding Rwandan director Marie-Clémentine Dusabejambo for her short film A Place for Myself. Last year Dusabejambo’s A Place for Myself also won three awards at ZIFF, The Sembene Ousmane Award, The Signis Prize, and the Golden Dhow for Best Short Film.

Rwanda has also seen the resurgence of film festivals including the Mashariki Film Festival, a steadily growing platform for both local and continental film projects. Its second edition which took place in March attracted over 44 short, feature and documentary films, and last year also saw the return of the Rwanda Film Festival.

ZIFF is also picking up the mantle in terms of bridging the gap between filmmakers and commercial prospects with its first annual film and TV content market, SOKO FILAM, that will take place during this year’s festival. This 3-day event will see a host of East African broadcasters and content distributers and aggregators meeting and doing business with filmmakers and content producers.

ZIFF’s acknowledgement that the behind-the-scenes business side of the industry is as important as the screenings and awards is an important development within the East African film industry space. The market will see many of the East African industry stakeholders in one place and will hopefully spin-off into further commercial developments for the industry.

With the advent of more and more digital revenue opportunities, filmmakers will be less reliant on the power of cinema chains and more able to monetise and fund their content via alternative means.

This year will see the launch of such platform, mahala.tv, a new digital content community and platform that will be launched later this year. mahala.tv will be the sponsor of ZIFF’s film market and sees East Africa as a critical test market for success.

As with the developing film industries across Africa, cooperation will be critical to any real commercial developments and success, and some of the recent developments coming out of East Africa are promising for the industry. From technological and production advancements, to more funding and commercial opportunities, to the various platforms and partnerships being created, the East African film community is steadily taking its place amongst the best and brightest on the continent.

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Lara Utian-Preston
Lara Utian-Preston is a passionately committed marketer and strategist with a focus on promoting African content and events. Two decades of working across Africa have provided her with insights and experience that she puts to work for the projects she manages. In 2006, Lara founded, and still personally manages, Red Flag Content Relations, a full service below-the-line agency that also focuses on African entertainment and lifestyle brand marketing, strategy, and publicity.

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