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East Africa Journal

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Thoughts on the Trip

Thursday, July 28
Willie Burton


Well, we've been home for about 72 hours, and we're having a hard time getting back in the time zone; our traveling group has had some interesting email exchanges at 2am. Like many groups of filmmakers who've gone on location together, we've become a sort of family, although fortunately one that really likes each other and gets along! 

As we scatter to our next projects we'll have a lot to look back on, and we'll gather again in a few weeks, with the other members of the Academy's International Outreach Committee, to talk about our plans for following up on these initial efforts in East Africa. It's important to remember that this first trip to the region, while involving a tremendous amount of valuable teaching and forming connections, is just a start. The traveling Academy members are already in email contact with filmmakers and students we met along the way, watching DVDs of films that were pressed into our hands, and thinking about what future activities will keep this momentum and excitement going. 

The big take-aways that I have from this trip are not just about the potential we found in the filmmakers of East Africa; I was amazed, and continue to be awed, by the depth of commitment to teaching, to sharing their knowledge and their love of film, that each of our delegates displayed. No one ever complained about being too tired (well, not too loudly!), and each and every time they were offered the choice between having some down time or teaching another workshop, they chose to make themselves available. We all took a lot of energy away from those 18-hour days; in fact, we got a lot more than we gave.

Rwanda Workshops with Delegates

Monday, July 25
Wynn Thomas


Delegate John Bailey:

Currently serving on the Academy’s Grants Committee, I knew about some of the grants that were being given to East African film organizations. I feel now even more motivated as we move forward to help focus the Academy’s interest in East Africa. I think it’s very exciting what the Academy is doing in this regard; Phil Robinson said that it’s not the American Academy but really the international Academy, since we have filmmakers, members, Oscar winners from around the world. The East African committee is just on the cusp of doing exciting work; it’s one of the areas in terms of foreign film submissions that has been underrepresented, and I think that one of the things we hope to do is give an impetus for films from East Africa to be submitted for consideration. That way it will bring higher visibility to the entire Academy membership of what is going on in East Africa.


Departing Africa

Sunday, July 24
John Bailey


Our final day in Africa. It's been fascinating, daunting, energizing and exhausting. A bit of shopping for last minute souvenirs of our trip, then it's off to the airport for the flight to Nairobi, then a change of planes for our flight to Amsterdam. There our group will split up; Wynn Thomas will head back to New York and the rest of us go on to Los Angeles. But the experience of being on this trip together will always stick with us.


Rwanda Film Festival

Saturday, July 23
Stephanie Allain


The opening of the Rwanda Film Festival and the launch of the country's first film school, the Kwetu Film Institute, was planned to take place in a big downtown hotel. That's how it has played out over the life of the festival, due to the complete absence of movie theaters in Rwanda. However, taking inspiration from its own Hillywood Festival, the festival organizers have boldly decided to hold their opening ceremony, and the first film screening, outdoors - in a way. Their inflatable screen will be installed in the construction site we toured the other day; plastic stacking chairs will be brought in and we'll all gather in the open air in what will shortly be their cinema - with a proper roof and state-of-the-art digital projection. We're sorry for them that they didn't meet their construction deadline - but what a great experience for us to enjoy the space before the roof gets put on!

Over conversation with local supporters of the festival we learned that, despite the lack of proper movie theaters, Rwandans have never lacked for the opportunity to see films from around the world. Cinema Clubs can be found in virtually every neighborhood of Kigali, as well as throughout the country. Kids pack into small rooms, clustered around a TV set showing a VHS or DVD of new and classic movies, usually screening in a language they don't understand. And it doesn't matter one bit. Here, as in Kenya, we met people who were intimately familiar with American movies, including "The Shawshank Redemption" which Willie Burton screened in Nairobi last week. We've now lost track of the number of people we've met in Africa who tell us that they've seen the film more than 10 times. So cool.


Kwetu Film Institute

Friday, July 22
Ellen Harrington


At the Kwetu Film Institute, we are reunited with the students and local film professionals we'd been working with earlier in the week, for more seminars and master classes - a full day of workshops!

Tonight we have dinner at the Inside Africa Hotel with a number of stakeholders in the local film community, including representatives from our partner organizations here – the Rwanda Cinema Centre and its new initiative, the Kwetu Film Institute. Other guests are from the Rwanda Development Board, Ministry of Sports and Culture and the Office of the President!


"Africa United" at Hillywood

Thursday, July 21
John Bailey

Kigali Workshop and "Hillywood" Screening
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We've had an amazing few days in "Hillywood!" 

After our Tuesday workshops we piled on the bus for the long, slow climb to Musanze in the northeast corner of Rwanda, just a few kilometers from the Ugandan border. We had a star sighting on the way - the famed cycling Team Rwanda was training at high altitude on the road out of Kigali. 

"Hillywood" is a remarkable film festival, bringing African-made films to audiences in the seven hill regions of Rwanda. Screenings take place on outdoor inflatable screens, offering movies to people who have no access to cinemas, and frequently, no electricity or television. This year's program offers a combination of short documentaries and narrative films made by young filmmakers from the Rwanda Cinema Centre, the group that organizes this festival, followed by a feature, "Africa United." 

Produced by Eric Kabera, the head of the Rwanda Cinema Centre and founder of the new Kwetu Film Institute, "Africa United" manages to explore, with insight, humor, adventure and real heart, the plight of child soldiers, AIDS orphans and teenaged sex workers, all set against the quest of four kids whose dream is to reach the World Cup in South Africa. The crowd in Musanze, several thousand strong, gathered at dusk on a football pitch (that's "soccer field" to us Americans) in the shadow of the volcano that is home to Rwanda's famed and endangered mountain gorillas. Since the film was shot in English, with a cast and crew from Rwanda and several neighboring countries (along with a few Brits), a local translator announced key plot points and dialogue into a microphone in the local language of Kinyarwanda. 

The movie, and the experience, transfixed the audience, who erupted in laughter, gasps or applause in all the right places. When the film was done, the excited crowd refused to leave the field, and a DJ provided the beat for an exuberant and spontaneous dance party. It was truly joyous - and made us all feel good about being alive.

The next day, after an early morning hike to about 9,000 feet to visit the gorillas ourselves, we drove west to the city of Gisenyi, just a stone's throw from the Congolese border. There a different atmosphere awaited us, as warm, balmy winds bathed the beach where the "Hillywood" team's inflatable screen, DJ stand and giant festival banner had been set up for the audience there. The crowd in this beach resort town was a bit more urbane, but their reaction to the experience was equally enthusiastic. What a thrill.


Gorillas and Hillywood Screenings

Wednesday, July 20
Phil Robinson


Another day starts early – 5:30am – as we depart the Gorilla’s Hotel and climb into four-by-four jeeps for another once-in-a-lifetime experience. We are visiting the mountain gorilla habitat – and will hike at about 7,000 feet in our search to observe these magnificent creatures in the wild. Another movie touchstone for many of us, as this is the region where renowned gorilla researcher Dian Fossey did her research work and where she was murdered, and also where “Gorillas in the Mist” was made.

After a hot and wet climb, and the miraculous chance to get close to some gorillas, we return to the hotel for a quick shower and then drive on to the second night of the Hillywood screenings – this time in Gisenyi near Lake Kivu, about an hour and a half to the west. After dropping our bags at the Kivu Serena Hotel we go to the  movie presentation at the beach on the shores of Lake Kivu in Gisenyi, just a few kilometers from the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Phil Robinson
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Sunday's Charge d'Affairs Reception

The gathering at the Charge d'Affairs was billed as a “reception in honor of U.S. Film Industry Professionals,” and invited to attend were a number of Rwandan film artists, supporters of the Rwanda Film Centre, and an international group of diplomats and NGO officials.

One blogger who attended the event commented, “The irony of all this ---- there is not one movie theater in the country of Rwanda. However, the work to develop a film industry in Rwanda will be one more way to improve the economy here.” Read his full post about the evening, including details about the attendees.


Visiting Rwanda

Tuesday, July 19
Willie Burton


A one-hour flight away from Nairobi, Kigali is a vastly different place. In the “Land of a Thousand Hills” you can't get anywhere without driving winding roads over mountainous terrain; there's no direct way to get anywhere. The altitude is higher and the terrain green and lush, even now in the winter months. 

And Rwanda seems to be booming. All around the city construction is going non-stop, or at least from about 7am to 10pm on the huge California-style home being built right next door to our hotel rooms. Tremendous investment is pouring into the country, and Rwandans are throwing themselves into the task of creating a new vision for their country - moving away from the traumas of the genocide and toward a future that positions Rwanda as an international economic and cultural engine.

Our first stop this morning was another construction site - the new home for the Rwanda Cinema Center and its ambitious film school, the Kwetu Film Institute. The participants enrolled in our workshops this week are a mix of incoming students at the Institute, local filmmakers (including a large number of actors) and complete novices. We opened our session with an open dialogue between the Academy members and the attendees, in an effort to gauge how best to relate to a group with such a varying level of expertise. Some excellent films are coming out of Rwanda these days - in a country with literally no movie theaters - but a lot of infrastructure and knowledge is needed to create a network of talent here. 

The Academy members shared their stories of how they got started in the film business, and their stories are strikingly similar. Everyone had to knock on an endless number of doors, work for free, and form a network of like-minded friends with whom they could practice making films. Those stories resonated with the workshop participants who face a similar challenge in getting their careers off the ground here. 

Workshop Wrap Party and Trip to Rwanda

Monday, July 18
Alfre Woodard
Stephanie Allain

Workshop Wrap Party
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Our final weekend in Nairobi was a blur; we could have used another week to meet with all the people we'd hoped to connect with and see all the sights we never got to. The week of workshops concluded with a “wrap party” on Friday night where the 8 short films completed over the two week seminars were screened for a wildly enthusiastic crowd of fellow filmmakers. Workshop participants all received certificates and spoke movingly of their excitement for the future of this growing filmmaking community. 

On the way to the celebration we made a detour to the Nairobi National Museum, where more visiting filmmakers from Sundance's Film Forward program were presenting a film festival in cooperation with Film Aid. Alfre is on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities that funded the Film Forward touring screenings, and she spoke profoundly from the podium, as did the American Ambassador to Kenya, Scott Gration, about our trip to Kakuma Refugee Camp the previous day and the vital work that Film Aid is doing to provide lifesaving public health information and relief from the psychological stress inherent in the lives of traumatized refugees throughout the region. 

Alfre Woodard with workshop participants.

Woodard looking at set designs with three students on the last day of Kenya workshops.

Up early (once again!) on Saturday morning to head to the GoDown Centre, a local arts cooperative housed in an old factory where community members can participate in theater and music productions and share painting studios. Phil and Alfre (once again!) joined the Ford Foundation's Orlando Bagwell, Film Forward filmmakers Taika Waititi ("Boy") and Jennifer Arnold ("A Small Act"), and Sundance's East Africa Theater Initiative participants (Hope Azeda, founding and artistic director, Mashirika Creative and Performing Arts in Rwanda; Cajetan Boy, “I Will Not Be Silent;” Indu Rubasingham, “The Great Game”) in a discussion on "The Art of Storytelling." 

Then a quick lunch before we squeeze in a last-minute visit to another Academy Grants recipient, the Kibera Film School. Located on the edge of one of the world's largest slums, Kibera Film School has managed to create a community of young filmmakers whose narrative film work about their lives is complimented by a YouTube television channel providing coverage of their own community. 

A few hours of R&R awaits - a game drive in Nairobi National Park, the only National Park in the world that lies within a city - before our flight to Rwanda next morning.

Academy Producers Branch member Kathy Kennedy conducting a conversation via cell phone on the making of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" in the screenwriting workshop. The plan was to use Skype but the internet connection was down, so Phil Robinson pulled out his new Kenyan cell phone and put it to good use.

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Week One Highlights

Sunday, July 17
Wynn Thomas


Another early call as we head to the airport for our brief flight to Kigali, Rwanda. We’ve had an incredible experience in Kenya and are now looking forward to seeing a very different, though nearby, country. After touching down and dropping our bags at the hotel we are making our first, and most important, stop on this trip – the Gisozi Memorial, depicting the history of the Rwandan genocide. The atrocities that took place here in the recent past can never be far from our minds as we visit this beautiful country, which has worked hard to begin the healing process. And their filmmakers have had a significant role to play in that process.

Andrea Kessler (production design mentor with ONE FINE DAY - Film Workshop) with a workshop participant.

Week One Highlights
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Storytelling Through Film in Kenya

Saturday, July 16
Carol Littleton


Delegate Carol Littleton:

I think there’s an extraordinary potential here for a very lively film community. First of all, they have stories that are unique; extraordinary changes are taking place in Kenyan society as well as in Africa, both conflicts and resolution of conflicts, and we’ve heard the stories that these young film participants want to tell. So on the level of creativity and the level of storytelling, this is a very rich gold mine here.

With this particular seminar that we’ve had this last week, we’re trying to instill in the participants the notion of the collaboration and cooperation that it takes to have a lively film community, and I think some light bulbs are beginning to go off and they’re beginning to see how important it is to talk among themselves and find ways collectively to solve their problems. Of course, they have the very same problems we do-- not enough time, not enough money, not enough equipment-- but it’s really the stories they have to tell that is the richness here, and I think they understand that now and are quite energized and have new perspectives to go out and start the next evolutionary process of filmmaking here in Kenya and in East Africa. It’s been very exciting to see them come alive and coalesce and become a group of filmmakers.

Perspectives on the Role of FilmAid International

Friday, July 15
Phil Robinson


Delegate Phil Robinson:

On Thursday, we took some time away from the ONE FINE DAY (formerly FilmInAfrica) workshops for what will probably end up as the most grueling day of our trip, flying to the north-eastern corner of Kenya to visit Kakuma, one of the world's largest refugee camps. It's been in constant operation for 20 years, and today over 80,000 refugees live here - mostly Somalis and Sudanese. Some have been here a very long time. Some were born here and know no other life.

Phil Robinson with workshop participants.

Images from Kakuma.
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The purpose for our visit was to look in on FilmAid International, an organization we help fund through the Academy's Grants Program. FilmAid's core function is to use refugees living in camps to write and produce films for the camp's inhabitants.

The U.N plane left Nairobi at 7:30 this morning, and by 9:30, we were driving past a herd of goats in a dry river bed on the way to Kakuma. FilmAid's executive director (and Academy member) Liz Manne took us into their office - three small, over-crowded rooms in a building they share with other NGOs - to meet the staff. With great dedication and what we could charitably call "not the latest equipment", they are producing films that teach the refugees such things as how to exercise and protect their rights, how to access services like health and education, and how to combat sexual and gender-based violence.

The UNHCR has found that these films are the most effective ways of communicating these subjects, as the illiteracy rate here is high; perhaps as much as 65%.

Some films are shown in the daytime, in classrooms. We visited one post-film discussion among a group of women in a small, makeshift church.

Other films are shown at night, in soccer fields, projected onto screens attached to the side of a truck. Often, these nighttime screenings are purely for entertainment - sometimes popular African films, sometimes mainstream Hollywood films - introduced by cartoons, attracting crowds in the thousands. The UNHCR staff told us that every refugee has been traumatized by the experiences that drive them to places like this, and so the psychological value of these screenings cannot be over-estimated. They relieve stress, provide a chance to laugh or identify with others, or simply offer pure - and much-needed - escape.

Finally, we sat with some of the young refugees FilmAid is training to be their next generation of filmmakers. Their enthusiasm for the medium, and their passionate desire to learn a craft, was palpable. One director showed us a short documentary he made about how some of the young people in the camp use Facebook.

Yes, Facebook.

The kids access it on cellphones, not computers, and it provides a connection with the outside world that was impossible just a few years ago. "If I get out of here," one told us, "I won't feel so out of place."

In 1992 I was part of a WGA group that visited some other refugee camps in Kenya, as refugees from Somalia poured across the border from civil war and famine. It was a deeply moving experience, and it's sad beyond words to see that humanitarian tragedy continuing not just unabated, but at a greater pace. Refugee camps were then - and remain today - awful places to live. A lot of aid organizations work hard just to keep up with the influx of new refugees at camps like these, and I admit that making or showing movies can easily sound like a feeble or dilettantish way of approaching the problems. But to the thousands of refugees who gather in a moonlit soccer field four or five nights a week to watch "Up" or "The Wizard of Oz", and forget war and death for a few hours, I swear it's no small thing.

"Crooklyn" Screening and Delegate Experiences

Thursday, July 14


Willie Burton during a workshop.

We announced our 'surprise screening' for Wednesday night during a live interview on morning radio - KISS FM in Nairobi. The film is Spike Lee's "Crooklyn" starring delegate Alfre Woodard with production design by Wynn Thomas. Both appeared in person to a packed and enthusiastic house.

Workshops and Screenings

Wednesday, July 13
John Bailey

Second day of film workshops in Kenya.
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Entering the second day our group is running on adrenaline - after a long trip, too little sleep, a 10-hour time difference and a busy first day of workshops and screening. Exhausting but exhilarating. The workshop participants are enthusiastic as well, hungry for information and the experience of exploring their crafts with the Academy members and the mentors from Europe. Most of these emerging filmmakers are Kenyan, but a significant number come from Ethiopia, Uganda, and Egypt, with representation from Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania and Nigeria as well. All of them have enough professional experience in their own countries that they are ready to take their filmmaking to the next level, and our group is sincerely impressed by their talent and level of commitment. Applications to the workshops are rigorous, and it shows. 

Carol Littleton (second from left) and Andrew Bird (editing mentor with ONE FINE DAY - Film Workshops, standing) with workshop participants.

Today was largely a day to explore collaboration between departments: the directors meeting with the actors who performed in the short exercise films that were shot last week, the art department talking with producers about timelines and budgets. Willie Burton headed off-site with the sound team to the Homeboyz Studio, a local foley stage. The editors are racing the clock to finish the short exercise films in time for the screening at the end of the week. Screenwriters talked pitches and log lines. Tonight's screening featured cinematographer John Bailey and editor Carol Littleton talking about "Silverado," for which they relocated to Santa Fe for an unusually long shoot (about five months) due to the short days and unpredictable winter weather. In a business where filmmakers are often separated from their families for long stretches on location, John and Carol have managed to do ten films together - sometimes being hired separately by directors who didn't realize they were married!

Workshop participants.

One of the workshop participants, Christian Daddy from Rwanda, had the following thoughts about the cinematography seminar with John and Carol:

"In my point of view as a cinematographer, it was a big privilege to have John Bailey in my class and comment while reviewing all the footage with Carol’s 30-year career as an editor. I like the touch of John Bailey as a DOP on the film “The Accidental Tourist;” I will learn more and more. Thanks a lot."

"The Shawshank Redemption" Screening

Tuesday, July 12
Willie Burton


Nairobi and Los Angeles have a lot in common: a warm, sunny climate, and lots of traffic… and now, multiplex movie theaters that look virtually identical to those in mini-malls around the U.S. Going to the movies is becoming an increasingly common activity in Kenya, though scarcely ten years ago there were only two large theaters - with a ticket price that put attendance out of reach for most people; the cost of admission is still relatively high.

First day of film workshops in Kenya.
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So a free screening of "The Shawshank Redemption" followed by a Q&A with Production Sound Mixer (and multi-Oscar winner) Willie Burton was a popular offering at the Prestige Plaza Cinemax Cinema on Monday night. The audience was forced to wait through four power outages before the screening could get started, but fortunately the mall has its own generator - not to mention a line-up virtually identical to the theaters in the U.S. such as "Bridesmaids" and "Transformers." And pretty good popcorn.

Seeing "Shawshank" with a crowd that largely knew the movie well (along with others who didn't, though they certainly know Morgan Freeman) was a remarkable experience. Many of us were taken by surprise, once again, by this powerfully emotional tale. With Willie there, many of us really listened to the film in a way we never had before. Dozens of questions followed the screening and Willie affably answered them all, capping off a 15-hour day that started at 9 a.m. with the first of our workshops.  

Workshops and Screenings

Monday, July 11
Phil Robinson


The first day of workshops started with a gathering of all the workshop participants and European mentors in the Heron Hotel’s largest function room, where our team was greeted with a huge round of applause; it's really apparent that it means a lot to people here that our group traveled this far for the training. The hotel has been taken over by the One Fine Day group, and all the meeting and function rooms have been turned into classrooms for each of the disciplines: acting, directing, editing, cinematography, production design, editing, screenwriting and sound. There's also a production office, just like you would find on any film shoot, where the workshop participants check out their laptops each morning and return them at the end of the day. We've brought along educational materials for our various partners on this trip, and this morning we distributed much-needed books on screenwriting and cinematography along with a full set of the Academy's Teaching Kits. These kits grew out of the Academy's Media Literacy Program for High School Students, and so far we've created them for ten different crafts from animation and screenwriting to documentary.

Carol Littleton with an elephant.

Carol with baby elephant.

Just as things change constantly on film shoots, our plans have changed a bit due to the work schedule of one of our planned participants. Director Lee Daniels discovered the day before our trip that his shooting schedule on his new film has been moved up, so as we were flying east toward Kenya, he was heading to New Orleans. It's always great when our members get the green light on one of their films, but Lee was sorry to miss this trip and we are sorry not to have him along.

Alre Woodard interview with Nairobi Star.

Alfre during an interview with the Nairobi Star. Read the article

Tonight's film screening will be “The Shawshank Redemption,” with Willie Burton taking questions from the audience of over 200 local professionals, alumni of the training workshops, and current workshop participants. Tomorrow night, John Bailey and Carol Littleton will screen "Silverado." For Wednesday night we're trying to find a region-coded BluRay (the only format compatible with the cinema's projector) for a third film that's been made by one of our delegation; so far it's just being advertised as a “surprise screening,” but that hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of the audience and the RSVPs are already full. Also in the audience will be nine workshop participants and teachers from the Kibera Film School (a relatively recent initiative that has just received an Academy Grant), who are bringing film training to the Kibera slum, home to over one million people in central Nairobi. We'll be adding a visit to the Kibera Film School to our itinerary for Saturday.

Exploring our surroundings

Ellen Harrington

On our first day we will be taking advantage of Nairobi’s amazing proximity to nature – wildlife is living in its natural habitat all around the city. About 20 minutes from our hotel is Giraffe Manor, where we can hand feed the giraffes, and a short distance beyond that, we’ll meet the elephants at the Daphne Sheldrick Orphanage. This amazing organization rescues baby elephants whose mothers have been killed by poachers, and raises them until they can survive on their own in the wild. It was featured in the recent 3-D movie “Born to Be Wild.”

Africa Journal

Ellen Harrington

Welcome to the journal dedicated to the Academy’s East Africa Outreach trip. Over the next two weeks, we’ll be posting highlights as the delegates meet some of the creative artists from this region. Please check back for daily updates including highlights and reflections from our journey.

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Alfre Woodard Video

Alfre Woodard
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Watch delegate Alfre Woodard discuss her hopes for the East Africa trip.

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