If you’ve been to Africa, you have stories, Sept 25

AFRICA themed BugHouse SPIN
Friday Sept 25, 7 doors open, 7:30 show starts
KGB Bar Redroom, 85 East 4th Street
$5 cover/2 drink minimum

A stellar line up:
Toni Blackman, Aissatou Diallo, Matthew Kohn, Uche Nduka, & Martha Williams

So part of why I picked Africa as a theme, is I had the privilege of teaching a screenwriting intensive in Kigali, Rwanda in the summer of 2010, and boy were there stories!

I thought I would share a post from my time there, where I share how the class actually started a group to continue to support each other.  They have since gone their own ways, but each doing well in their own right.

Here’s the blog post:

As many of you know, I had the opportunity to teach a scriptwriting class to 20 Rwandanese through the Rwanda Cinema Center/Film Institute this summer. I was privileged to go inside the lives and minds of my students and am deeply pleased that they formed 1000 Hills Film Coalition so they can actualize the films they envision. This is a long-plea for your potential support of this talented group. If you can’t bother reading this long-winded text, the opportunity to contribute is at the bottom…..

And first…the class…the story.


So, once upon a time in the back of a restaurant called Chez Robert, there were 20 curious students of film taking a writing class called Merging Fact and Fiction. The class begins, was eye gazing (inner hippy at full throttle)…and after the giggling subsided and we laughed a little more we dove into the heart of the class. I start with an exercise – I asked them what’s the problem, situation or opportunity in their lives right now (this is the fact stuff). This is essentially a starting point and ultimately the fulcrum of the class. Personal experience is, for me, my greatest inspiration for making work. Once we have a problem or situation, we then uncover or create fictional villains, main characters and conflict.

But what I discovered was that most people’s problems were either not having enough money, being jobless or not being able to pay for school fees.

Although there was one situation I quite enjoyed. A well-spoken woman in her twenties, Juliette (to the left) said her problem is she wants a husband who’s a partner not a boss. Rwandan men are always ordering their wives around, she says. I felt my own internal Oprah Whinfrey tickled with pride. Maybe she’ll start an NGO, called “getyourowngoddaman coffee.org.”

But that’s beside the point. Poverty was the main theme. It wasn’t completely shocking but I was curious. How is the reality dealt with now or going to be dealt with? It certainly is a rising theme in the US, but can’t be compared to the situation in Rwanda. We have different histories, interests, opportunities and obstacles.

And then the whole class went to the fespad conference where financial need, support and capital was reiterated.

Huh, what? The class went to a conference? Yes, we did. But didn’t you have class to teach?

So it starts with a text at 10 pm on Tuesday….”Martha, can we meet at the Serena (hotel) tomorrow at 8 AM. We will meet some American producers.” Then I say, “Hm, ok, sure I can go but not sure why you need me, but I can go and don’t we have class tomorrow?” “Ah, yes ok,” is the reply. I guess that means something, not sure what, so I go.

I show up at 8:15 and Joseph, the smart Kenyan assistant (fable/comedy writer, business man and general force) says he will be there shortly so I have $4 coffee at the over-consuming, over-the-top Serena and at 8:40 he shows up. This is fine, cause registration goes from 8am to 9am. Yes, registration. This meeting “with producers” was actually the creative business forum aspect of the fespad music/dance festival (I saw Lauryn Hill at the festival mm), and several producers spoke….hence producers.

I sit with my 20 students in the Serena Hotel, 5 stars and free food and water and air conditioning and flush toilets and sometime the electricity cuts out.

So the ministry of sports and culture and the Rwanda Development Program (RDP) and other very important people talk and then they have speakers from dance, music, theater, film. OK, but first, please let me tell you, I look on the program and Jay T Jenkinsis speaking. Jay T is a New York based choreographer and was my jazz funk teacher for two years. The smallest of worlds, we scream from excitement (American style) and hug. Also, Roger Ross Williams, the 2010 academy award winner for documentary Music for Prudence speaks as well as music producer Jayson Jackson and Steve Colman, a poet, writer, performer and director (I talk about him later). So there is a lot of talk…about industry and how to get started and how to make it. And then there are entrepreneurial local artists, Eric Kabera (Rwanda Film Institute), Pierre Kayitana (Rwanda Cinema Center), Hope Azeda, Albert Rudatsimburwa sharing their experience. Making it and survival is of course a well-worn arts topic especially as capitalism leaches into the entire universe.

At the end of the conference, there are questions and answers and I am struck by one young filmmaker’s comment. She gets up and says, “We need money! We need capital and support.” She pleads, almost demands – the preacher of capital. Hm. Yes, we all do. But I wouldn’t expect that kind of support till I became a relatively fluent filmmaker. But then again, I can get loans to finance my education and I have access to people who invest, institutions and changemakers.

So, the next day before we dive into the writing process, I talk with my students about the conference and I point out this demand for money. But we need money, they say. And I share a conversation I had with Steve Colman. Steve’s a self-made artist out of Englewood NJ who started rhyming with his friend in middle school and has made it all the way to Broadway. He was a talent and made it, through luck and preparation. Steve and I talk about the demanding girl who spoke and he says, “You have to understand, if I saw great work here, I would do what I can to support its growth.” Ah yes, it is more complicated than that…but there is much truth to this.

So, as a class, we talk about this craft and money thing….and it’s a whirlwind of talk, because one needs money to get started, a baseline and an infrastructure and there is no simple answer.

But we all agree that at the heart of “making it” is GOOD WORK, a belief in self and ultimately a focus on craft. So, yes…come to class and yes….the Rwanda Cinema Center/Rwanda Film Institute is building a curriculum. Make great work, the money will come. If you build it….blah blah.

So we keep talking… And oh wait, but if there is nowhere to show or monetize the work, then what? Which is why Rwandans are always looking outside for help. This is smart in a way.

One of the key points of the conference was the need to build an industry. There is only one TV station in Rwanda and apparently it “needs some work” and only 8% of the households in Rwanda have electricity. What this means is there is no film industry yet – at least nothing substantial. Ah, so what does one do? So, dear students, what will you do?

Being the eternal optimist, I see lack of industry also an opportunity. I say, think of Rwanda as a start up…you could create a kind of dot com type revolution. Rwanda is heartily focused on rebuilding and there is support for innovation. This can be seen in the Rwanda’s aggressive 2020 vision manifesto. And lo and behold, a creative business agency was formed by President Kagame in response to the fespad conference…a sign that it is supported and a reflection of the presidents ability to instantly create an agency…like that (another fascinating topic for later). Note to self: get Mr. Kagame on your side.

So, here you are at the beginning of the rebuilding. In the beginning was YOU and YOU were the beginning. You, along with a few others, will be the generation that creates this industry. Maybe you get together as a group and brainstorm. What would an industry look like in Rwanda? What are the opportunities? What is the flavor of your storytelling? What does Rwanda and East Africa need next? Look to yourselves and each other first, then organize, then grow and partner! I promise it will be fruitful.

And dear god, keep writing, looking, learning, smelling, seeing, connecting and criticizing. They get it. They do. We are all brimming with possibility.

Then we move on with class, we learn about story elements, dramatic construction, conflict, character. We have sussed out ideas, and they’ve made stories about forced marriages, reuniting of families, the capital of the mind, the preacher of hope, orphans (lots of them), 2 blind men, prostitutes, defilement, love, gender equality. And most importantly we’ve become friends.

But in addition to simply learning more about writing, they decided to keep going…to take the reins, to build it, to start something. I originally thought it would be a writing group, where they put pen to paper. But indeed, they have grander ambitions and have created the “1000 Hills Film Coalition.” It has officers, and manifestos and goals and objectives and challenges and many hills of inspiration. And what I love most is that they are focused first of all on developing their voices, honing their craft and using the support of the group to be a new generation of Rwandan filmmakers.

Here’s to the 1000 hills and the 1000 stories that they are building.