Kantarama Gahigiri is a Rwandan and Swiss filmmaker who grew up between the two continents. She is holding a Masters of Arts in both Cinema and International Relations. Recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Award, she moved to New York where she spent several years working in the industry getting practical knowledge on set. New York is also where she started directing a slate of award-winning comedic shorts (2012-2013).
Her first feature film Tapis Rouge has been screened and awarded worldwide including TV5Monde Best Francophone Feature Film, followed by a national theatrical release in France (2017).
She is now developing Tanzanite, her second feature, and a female centric afro-futuristic thriller that takes place in colorful Nairobi. Kantarama is an alumni of Realness – Screenwriter’s Residency (2018) selected after evaluation of more than 130 projects from the African continent; an alumni of La Fabrique Cinéma de l’Institut français, amongst the 10 projects selected worldwide during the 72nd Cannes Film Festival (2019), and of Artists in Residency by Africa Centre (2019), one of the 5 artists to be awarded a residency.
Since 2014, she also teaches directing, writing & producing workshops to help younger artists implement their work in Rwanda, Kenya, Tunisia, Tanzania, Switzerland, Brazil and Malaysia.
BY ELELWANI NETSHIFHIRE
This conversation takes place between the beautiful, sunny Vancouver and Australia where the Swiss-Rwandan filmmaker Kantarama Gahigiri is currently based, Bundanon Trust, Artists in Residency.
Elelwani: Kantarama, thank you for your time. I am always eager to engage with fellow filmmakers. The season has just picked up, what are you busy working on?
Kantarama: I have so many deadlines this month, it is good. I am not complaining but it is a lot. The thing is that everything comes at once, and when it goes quiet it really gets quiet. Right now, I am preparing for various programs I am participating in. I have also been moving around a lot and it is kind of hard to keep track of where I am. I make sure I do what needs to be done.
Elelwani: I have an idea of the amount of paperwork that has to go in place. I saw on your social platforms that you were in Cannes last month. I am one of those filmmakers who has had their gaze on Cannes for a while, it is still part of the bigger picture for me, yes, with all the good and the bad I have read about it. I still want to experience what the experience can offer to one’s growth and lifelong career. What project did you traveled there with? How was your overall experience?
Kantarama: I have been selected to La Fabrique cinéma de l’Institut français, which is a development program that happens during Cannes, with my next project, Tanzanite. They choose 10 projects every year, and really take care of them. For example, they tailor made a “menu” of workshops, master classes, presentations, and one-to-one meetings according to the specific needs of each project. They work hard to make it relevant. So yes, it has been an amazing experience. Being well surrounded from the beginning is so special, encouraging and inspiring. I am grateful.
Elelwani: I enjoy having open and genuine conversations with other filmmakers, about our spaces, and the work we do at large so when I saw the Africa Centre’s Artists In Residency (AIR) final winners list I felt the need to discover more about a fellow female filmmaker, African at that. I was inspired by your achievements, positive energy shows and passion in what you do. This is what inspired me to reach out, so I can congratulate you and get a chance to document your process of creating.
“They tailor made a “menu” of workshops, master classes, presentations, and one-to-one meetings according to the specific needs of each project. They work hard to make it relevant. So yes, it has been an amazing experience. Being well surrounded from the beginning is so special, encouraging and inspiring. I am grateful.“
Kantarama: Thanks a lot, really, this feedback means so much to me. I am glad you were inspired, just being able to spark some inspiration in anyone is good enough for me.
Yes, I am currently in Australia for AIR and this will be throughout July, they announced it very early, you know, I have been very excited, looking forward to it, and here we are now. I just got here and it is promising to be great. As filmmakers we work very hard, it is a challenging field and a residency like this gives you the opportunity to really dedicate some time to your projects with a more focused mindset in a space where all your energy is focused on just that. And then there are the surroundings, incredible, you can just take a walk in the eucalyptus forest to clear your mind. It is a beautiful place.
Elelwani: Take me into your day-to-day routine at AIR? Are you working on the same piece you took to Cannes a month ago?
Kantarama: You know, it takes many years to make a film, and there are very distinct stages, and very different aspects, and different moods during the journey. So yes I am working on the same project, Tanzanite, but it feels very different. The work here is more internal. It is about finding the core of the film. In Cannes, it was more about getting some connections with the world.
Elelwani: Tanzanite, I thought so. There is not much information about this title on your website or online in general. The name is gripping for me; can you share more of what this piece is about?
Kantarama: Let see… It is a thriller based in 2040 Kenya, it will address certain social realities, some economical and political realities, but in a joyous delirious form, with very colorful characters and situations. But I cannot say too much, sorry! It is better to keep the surprise. But what I can say is that with my writing partner, Kivu Ruhorahoza, we are having a lot of fun, and hope that it will inspire many.
Elelwani: I also gathered that you have been part of the festivals and programs that can truly launch one’s filmmaking career, an affirmation of sorts, yet I am still interested in finding out just how important is it to get your projects in ‘development initiatives’ as a filmmaker?
Kantarama: I have to say that this is the first time a project of mine has gotten so much attention at such an early stage, I am still in the writing process as I mentioned, the development stage is coming along well. As a matter of fact I was part of Realness Screenwriting Residency in South Africa with this very project.
Participating in Realness was very important for me, a game changing experience, I submitted the project that was very young at the time, and the writing truly began there, in a residency that took place just an hour away from Johannesburg. The space is like paradise, perfect peace and great energy. You get to work really hard because they push you a lot, coach you in all means necessary, which is really good.
So, as I said, I started writing there and although the project is still in its early stages, I submitted it to AIR too, well, I had to submit the application with a project so, yes, I applied with Tanzanite, and I have had to rewrite and prepare visuals.
That is why you do not see a lot of content about it online, Tanzanite has not been shot; currently it is still a work in progress.
Elelwani: I know Realness, another great one. I am looking forward to this project, it is coming across as a piece that will awaken us all, being selected for all those opportunities can only mean that it is relevant and will be coming of age.
I like your approach, I believe it has the power to reach the younger generation effectively, we are seemingly a generation that yearns for entertainment, something that makes our days lighter, thus educating with an entertaining flair carries potential of bringing the change we seek.
Kantarama: Yes, it is really important to address the youth. In twenty years from now they will be the ones who will decide on those matters. So we have to invest in them now.
Elelwani: Speaking of the youth, I have also noted your strong traceable passion for the young generation in your body of work, how you not merely focus on your projects and bringing them to life but you teach in communities where film is outwardly far fetched. You are so invested in training as well.
Your images from the community you worked with in Rwanda have so much life in them.
Kantarama: You know there is no cinema school in Rwanda, only certain initiatives, and not everyone gets to travel. And although I cannot do training full time, I really enjoy being able to offer a piece of knowledge when I can, on writing, directing and so on, that way the skills can be developed, it is very important for me, I cannot stress this enough.
Elelwani: That is really great. Marginal communities are often overlooked. We should all have this kind of heart, a will to make our world a better place through any medium possible.
In one of your interviews, you speak about your interest in telling stories that speak to your heart and for me that sealed the deal knowing that is how your light reaches others because you are genuine. Can you touch more on this point? The stories you would say truly speak to your heart, what are they?
Kantarama: I think it evolves with time, that is what happens, your work can never be at the same level. As time goes you have to find your voice right, it is not something that is instant, it is a long journey, at least for me, for others it happens very early but for me, it has been a process, I had to acquire skills, train, and a few trial and errors here and there.
But the subjects that are important are those who speak closely to my heart. For example, I have been really reconnecting with my roots here in East Africa and I really want to tell stories that are based there. And that convey a different message than the one that we usually see on foreign media.
Tanzanite is going to be about women and how it is difficult and dangerous to be a woman in Africa nowadays and also how it is time to reclaim our wealth, our identity, our culture, our resources and simply everything. So these are the themes that I am concerned with at the moment.
And two years ago, I worked on a friend’s film called The Mercy of the Jungle (directed by Joël Karekezi). I did that because the topic spoke to my heart as well, his film is really about the absurdity of War on a human level. It is not my film but it was really important that I contribute.
Lastly, my debut film Tapis Rouge (ndlr: Red Carpet in French), is mostly about second generation immigration and integration. However, it is driven by this guy, Jaimerose, pursuing a dream, in a sort of road movie style.
Tapis Rouge was made with non-professional actors that really carried the piece, they had no experience but they delivered an authentic performance that was able to bring a message of hope to the audience. Now some of them like Jaimerose Awazi, and Marcel Ndala are even pursuing their career in acting. Or like Sebastien Loopes, he’s killing it as a DJ. I think the film gave them a lot of energy, myself included.
All this is a long journey ever evolving, thanks to many artistic encounters, new situations, exchanges and other ingredients. However, since 2015 it has been a lot about Africa and the youth, there is so much talent there. We need to pay attention.
Elelwani: Your heart is in the right place. What are your final thoughts at the moment, on African film, cinema at large?
Kantarama: It is difficult to speak about Africa in general, I do not pretend to know everything about the tradition of cinema but I speak of spaces I navigate in, East Africa being my main focus.
Filmmaking in Africa is closer to Jazz structure, than to the traditional 3 act structure, different stories can be told in various forms. Although we have a long way to go with funding opportunities and support, there is a strong wave/ wind of fresh energy coming from Africa; it is a fantastic time for cinema.
Elelwani Netshifhire is a writer, Filmmaker, and the founder of Thase Media. She has worked on various international productions and now focuses on growing personal projects utilizing mediums she specializes in.