Eric Kabera, filmmaker and founder and president of the Rwanda Cinema Center, Kigali

with Claire Frost


Skype chat between Eric Kabera and Claire Frost


Rwanda Film Festival, inflatable screens all photos courtesy of the festival



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ERIC KABERA: As of now I’ve been working for about 22 years, ever since I returned from refugeehood into Rwanda, which is the story of everybody else who has been living outside of Rwanda. So I came back in 1994 and started off working as an assistant and fixer to many journalists that came into Rwanda to cover the post-genocide era and recovery. 

CLAIRE FROST: The term ‘fixer…’ What does that mean?

EK: A ‘fixer’ means someone who organizes the film crew and journalists. So for instance someone from The Guardian or The New York Times wants to come and speak to the local people about their story and their history, their recovery, and their future prospects. I would actually set the ground and prepare the place and the people so when the journalists and the correspondents came, they spoke to the people that wanted to speak to them. 

CF: How did you transition from being a fixer to wanting to make your own films?

EK: After watching all the correspondents and all the media people that came around Rwanda, I realized and discovered the power of film and the power of video coverage and television and so I started off trying to learn. I was learning pretty quickly because I was learning from the best, like top BBC journalists, top NBC journalists, top CNN journalists, and many others. Then came some documentaries that covered us, and by seeing that, I realized that it is very important that I also get myself involved in recording our own voices. Based on that I started making short videos and short films, and focusing on survivors and perpetrators and observing the early recovery stage in Rwanda. Then when I did that I traveled, and I realized that however many documentaries and stories had been told about Rwanda, people still had no idea where Rwanda is located and the magnitude of the story to tell.

I actually challenged my friend, who was a cameraman at the time, and said ‘With all these documentaries we have covered, people still have no idea where Rwanda is.’

So he said to me, ‘If you make a feature film people will really appreciate your location and appreciate your story.’

So I said to him, ‘But I’ve never made a feature film before and I don’t know how to go about it.’

He said, ‘I’ve made a film before. We can team up and make a movie.’

So he went on and collected most of the narratives from the survivors and we made it into a screenplay. Based on that we managed to make the feature film on the genocide and that was the beginning of it all.

CF: I assume you are talking about 100 Days, is that correct? 

EK: Yes, 100 Days was the first feature film made on the genocide and that literally propelled all the other filmmakers to write screenplays and make movies on the same subject.


Eric Kabera, filmmaker and founder of the Festival


CF: I read that in 100 Days you used the survivors and perpetrators of the genocide, the general people of Rwanda, as actors in the film. I was wondering, what was that experience like for you? Did you hear reactions from the actors on that experience? Do you feel like that at all enabled a reconciliation or a reckoning with that past? 

EK: It was very challenging, emotionally, physically, financially, and culturally, so just to go out there and tell people that I am making a film about the genocide just a few years after the genocide, it was a bit surreal, kind of unheard of. There are so many other priorities—from food, shelter, medication, and education—and telling people that you have this passion, they found it a little bit crazy. But we went on with our journey and our passion and we made it. We used survivors and perpetrators on the location of the genocide. The whole thing was a bit traumatic, but at the time I was also young and dynamic. That was the driving force as well. The passion to tell the story from the Rwandan perspective using the Rwandan voices.

CF: Do you feel like the actors in the film were…did you get a sense that the actors in the film gained something from their experience of helping retell this story? 

EK: Yes, because many of them ended up becoming storytellers themselves in their career. That indeed unleashed the potential of understanding the magnitude and making stories about Rwanda and genocide more relevant.

CF: So then, from making this film, how did you transition into thinking about actually doing a film festival?

EK: So what happened is, when we finished making the film, we took the film to international film festivals. I had never been to film festivals before and I understood for the first time the power of films, how films connect, and can act as a mobile memorial for the genocide. When I came back I continued my recording and then I continued teaching some of the guys that I was with during the making of 100 Days, and that was sort of the genesis of setting up the Rwanda Cinema Center. From there we went on and wanted to show those films to the Rwandan people, so I would get 100 Days and other feature films and project them to the community because I realized that most of the films that had been made on this very subject had never been seen by the local community—including the people who had appeared in the films. So that was the raison d’etre for me to set up that particular initiative. We started it in Kigali and then in the countryside, and the rest is what continues today.

CF: The travelling aspect of the festival is really fascinating to me and seems like a huge undertaking on the part of the festival itself, but also a really incredible resource that you are providing in allowing people to see themselves mirrored back. I was interested in how you are using the medium of film to do this. I read that during the genocide radio was used quite a bit as a form of propaganda and for fueling the genocide. As film is a very different medium from radio, how do you feel that it interacts with that past history of media propaganda?

EK: Well that’s a great question because, you know, as you put it, we have a tragic history of media playing a very negative role in our society and so our mandate as the next generation and the new storytellers is to say, ‘how can we use media as a tool of education, exposing people to themes of human rights and human development so that we don’t go back into the same trap?’ We’ve found ourselves with a two-fold mandate of what we call ‘edutainment.’ Education and entertainment, and exposure, really. To expose people to various realities and various experiences of the world-at-large and all the challenges and aspirations and dreams.


The KWETU Film Institute, meeting



CF: It sounds like the film often acts to inspire people, to see it and then continue telling their own stories. Do they then come back to the Rwanda Film Center, where there are courses that can continue their process of engaging with the practice of storytelling?

EK: That leads me to the idea of creating a space where it becomes a space of the creative minds so it becomes sort of an incubation center.

CF: And that is part of the new theater that you are building in Kigali?

EK: Yes, that’s part of the new school and culture space that we have built. It can be an inspirational space, so it can empower listening and become a space of dialogue by using film and arts and culture in general as a tool.

CF: Do you get government funding for the work that you do at the center, does it come from private funds, how do you support these efforts?

EK: We have gotten some government support, and institutionally we are supported by the government, but the support is not enough based on the needs at hand. So we are always relying on international support from NGOs, embassies, or various stakeholders such as Deutsche Welle, and other friends such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who shares with us their library and their basic curriculum, and sends us teachers. This support is very much needed because the vision of the process is grander than ourselves, so it has actually grown bigger than the mission that we set ourselves to accomplish.

CF: Well that seems like a testament to the kind of momentum that the vision has.

EK: Yes, but it is a challenge at the same time. And then when you are operating in a place that does not necessarily flourish into financial stability, where there are so many other priorities that media education and culture are not top priorities of various stakeholders, but you know it’s changing compared to the last twenty years that we came from and where we are now, its creating a new landscape.

CF: How do you navigate your goals and your mission and receiving support for that, when, as you acknowledge, there are much more grave issues relating to the resources that are available?

EK: It’s a double-edged sword. It is in the passion to continue assisting our need to unleash and empower our minds and hearts and expose our culture as being as important as having food on the table. Because once your mind is enlightened and is broadened then it is easier to find food on the table. But if your mind, and your soul, or culturally you feel limited then the rest follows. So culture is a very strong means to give people either their dignity or their capacity to unleash the potential that they have.

CF: So in what I read about you it sounds like you came to this point where for a long time the festival has been a space where stories of the genocide could be shared throughout the country, but that lately you have become interested in making the shift to telling stories that speak more broadly to different experiences across Africa as a continent. I’m curious what it was for you that made you feel it was time to make that shift?

EK: I wouldn’t really call it a shift but I would call it a gradual progression. Africa does not only have stories of tragedy or death or desolation or pain, but we also have all these other elements. That has to be showcased and portrayed. So my idea to project a new narrative from my country and the continent is due to the fact that each time someone speaks about Africa and Rwanda it has to be very miserable, very despicable, very desperate. As a filmmaker and as a native of this continent and of this place, I just find it of paramount importance to highlight the fact that we have beauty, we have elegance, we have laughter, we have vision, we have dreams like any other person. Just like any other regular person in Chicago, New York, Tokyo, Paris, or Cape Town.

When somebody is out in the middle of Kentucky and they see Beast of No Nation they might say, ‘Is that how Africa looks?’ And so my take is, ‘You know, the entire history of Europe is not about the second World War, or the first World War for that matter.’ The recording of Africa…has been so stereotypical. I wanted to contribute to breaking that kind of sub-narrative.


Rwanda Cinema Centre


CF: Having a narrative that is actually generated by the people of the place as opposed to projected onto it by outsiders. I’m wondering, do you feel there has been an influence of the Rwanda Film Festival outside of Rwanda, or do you feel like you are in conversation with other film producers or makers and festivals outside of Rwanda?

EK: First of all, it has been observed to have limited resources but strong passions and will to overcome the challenges. Which is pretty much the spirit of Rwanda, the spiritual resilience of Rwanda. Small actions with big impact. That is what made the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences find us on the map. Three years ago they made a trip into East Africa and they came and visited and gave master classes and literally endorsed us as an important education organization that deals with this particular medium. So we have people coming from Nigeria, Uganda, and other places who look at us and get inspired and see that we are playing our role, however small it is, but playing it decently. We have partners, we have an Oscar winner who offered his support to give the school education training, and that resulted in a two-year program which is being extended into a third-year to create more storytellers and technicians in this medium.

CF: Coming from a very specific perspective and being interested in portraying the stories of your local population and your local history, how do you balance that with the narratives that come from engaging all of these obviously incredibly resources, but are coming from outside? How do you balance the local and the global in your organization?

EK: I think it’s just a matter of becoming true to yourself. To play locally and think globally is a challenge, because at some point you do not have the same resources. I cannot afford to do action scenes and car chases like you have in Hollywood and so forth, and that’s not really my mandate. Nevertheless, I can learn something from Hollywood which can speak to my local reality, and then when I take it to Hollywood it will be something genuine and something unique. It’s a matter of a having your own identity, but playing within the framework of the cinematic narrative that people can easily understand, and literally carving yourself—or ourselves—a kind of space and voice that needs to be heard.

CF: You said that you were interested in making a comedy film and I was wondering just a bit more about what you wanted to do with that and why a comedy specifically, rather than a romance or something else.

EK: I think that goes within the framework of actually contributing to a sort of narrative out of the African continent…something else that is light, that is enjoyable. At the beginning of that was coming up with the concept of making a moving called Africa United which is a story that talks of Africa but in a lighter mood you know, without necessarily avoiding the adversity. And then for instance one of my other lighter approaches to talk about Rwanda’s recovery is in my recent documentary called Intore (“the chosen”) that talks of Rwanda twenty years after the genocide against the Tutsi. It’s about where the country is, what has been the history, what is happening now, and what the people think of tomorrow. So that’s the film that I am showing on June the 28th [2016] at the UN headquarters in New York.

  • with Claire Frost

    ERIC KABERA's most recent film is:
    Muzungu Motard: Love on Bike/ Feb-2016
    "On her way to sign a business deal in Ethiopia, a German girl named Susan ends up stuck in Rwanda where her life is put upside down, probably for the best."

    Claire Frost: