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Obstacles Facing East African Filmmakers - 2002-10-09


Kenya’s landscapes and people have starred in many famous Hollywood films, from Out of Africa to the latest Tomb Raider. But it is much rarer to see homegrown East African movies. That's because local filmmakers face many obstacles.

Ugandan filmmaker Kalundi Robert Serumaga voices a common lament among those working in the East African film-industry.

He says, “ White people come from abroad and hire Africans to participate in making the white person’s story. And sometimes they are called films made in Uganda but they are not. They are an extension of the film practice or industry from wherever those white people came from. I can’t think really of one single feature length dramatic production on film that has been produced by Ugandans for Ugandans at least in the last 20 years.”

Mr. Serumaga was in Kenya to attend the annual African Cine-Week.

As part of this year’s festival, the Kenya National Film Association gave awards for the best local films, from documentaries to student films to soap operas. There were also daily workshops to debate issues affecting Kenya’s fledgling film and television industry.

One of the key issues that came up, time and again, was funding.

One of Kenya’s leading film-makers, Dommie Yambo Odotte, has been working on her first full-length feature film, Forgotten, for the last five years. It is a story about the East African families left behind when South African anti-apartheid freedom fighters went home in 1994.

Ms. Yambo Odotte started shooting her film with a grant from the Ford Foundation. But her American donors did not meet the entire budget and she is now struggling to raise funds for post-production and distribution.

Many filmmakers believe local television stations should give them more support, both in making and broadcasting Homegrown programs. Some 80 per cent of airtime is currently occupied by foreign programs, such as The Bold and the Beautiful and Melrose Place.

Ms. Yambo Odotte complains she had to pay 1-thousand 5-hundred dollars to Kenya Television Network to air her pilot talk show, Together on the Move.

She says, “My biggest problem with the broadcasting institutions is while they will find it very easy and affordable to get into a plane and walk into some market in Europe and America to buy Oprah Winfrey for example, when it comes to programs that are locally made, they want us to pay for it.”

The station’s program manager, Mburugu Gikunda, says they simply cannot afford to fund more locally-made programs.

He says, “Because we want to keep our costs low we therefore do not look more at investing in local programs. To make one program, a very basic production, say drama, an episode would cost something like 800,000 Kenya Shillings. For a 30 minute program is not recoverable in this market unfortunately.”

Mr. Gikunda says income from advertising during the show would be a quarter of that figure.

Jane Murago-Munene, chairperson of the Kenya National Film Association, argues that Kenyan T-V stations have a moral obligation to show Kenyans more programs that are relevant to domestic audiences.

She says, “We are reaching a point where we are saying it’s not business as usual. It’s not just about making money. It’s also about the moral obligation to our societies, to the societies you are selling to, to the society that is keeping you in business. We need to have them to show our people what belongs to them.”

Filmmakers believe the Kenyan government should do more to support the industry.

After years of lobbying, the government has promised a draft bill to establish a Kenya Film Commission by mid October. This would act as a one-stop shop to offer advice and information to filmmakers with a national database, help them cut through red tape and, most crucially, help with financing.

Ms. Yambo Odotte is confident that the creation of a film commission will dramatically improve the fortunes of the Kenyan film industry.

She says, “I do not believe there is any turning back. The road might be a little more difficult because there are certain issues the filmmakers want to be included and the government might find it difficult. Especially issues of creating a fund that can fund the film industry, and such a fund would be fed from the Exchequer for example, creating taxes, issues of implementation. But I think we are on the right track.”

The African Charter on Broadcasting says broadcasters should be required to promote and develop local content, including the introduction of minimum quotas.

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