Developing local filmmaking industry in East Africa

“If we don’t tell our stories no one else will”. This mantra is on the mind of the scriptwriting students during each Maisha Lab. The eight days of training helps the candidates to either learn the basis or to deepen their screenwriting knowledge. Thanks to the ACPCultures+ Programme, this cultural project reached international status and developed East African cinema in a more permanent way.

Maisha, created in 2004 by Mira Nair in Uganda, trains filmmakers through short-term programmes. Their mission is to “empower” and “enrich” artists to “establish the roots of a self-sustaining film industry in East Africa”. This explains why the training takes place in Uganda but also in Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.

The Scriptwriting Lab selects 15 candidates with a short film screenplay every year. The scripts are improved and revised by means of workshops and meetings with mentors. At the end of the course, the Maisha Film Lab selects the best scenario and provides 2,000$ to produce it. In 2014, the funding was coming from the ACPCultures+ Programme and was enough to allow the whole training to be supported by scholarships.

“A good film comes from a good script. Scriptwriting is the backbone for good cinema. We have a lot of writers out there, but screenwriting in particular is not being taught in film schools. How do you build a narrative, make it interesting?” questions Fibby Kioria, the project director.

The lab participants had access to networking opportunities with their fellow filmmakers and their community, as well as with their mentors, who are professional working writers and filmmakers from all over the world. The participants also gained exposure to films and filmmakers form all over the world, in a bid to actualise the idea of a career in filmmaking.

“During each lab there was a master class open to the public and facilitated by one of the mentors. We publicised these masterclasses and screenings to non-participants and the public”, explains Fibby Kioria. “The screenwriting labs were held in conjunction with local Film Festivals so that participants could have the opportunity to network and engage in the East African film community. Participants engaged in intensive 1-on-1 sessions with each of their screenwriting mentors and received advice and instruction on how to move their stories forward by revising their scripts following each session with the mentors”.

In 2014, thanks to the contribution of ACPCultures+, Maisha trained 60 scriptwriters and directors. This translates to a healthy number of new professionals who can contribute their voices by sharing their stories and skills with the world. “We anticipate the films made will make it to international film festivals giving the filmmakers an opportunity to showcase their talent, gain exposure to the world of filmmaking from a different angle and share our stories.

The 60 scripts were ready for production at the end of each screenwriting and we continue to encourage the filmmakers to apply for funding individually to turn their screenplays into film,” underlines Fibby.

“African countries are endowed with different TV stations that need content. And content can only come from the creative industry. TV stations are paying taxes and this content can help them attract an audience and get advertisements. If we have 60 new films each year, we are developing the industry,” says Fibby.

A positive outcome

After ten years, results are praiseworthy. Maisha provided over 550 scholarships and contributed to the production of over 50 films. Besides, several films were shown in international film festivals such as Rotterdam, Berlin or Toronto, enabling a chosen few to turn their short films into feature.

Amongst the former students, we can count the actress Lupita Nyong’o who just obtained an Academy award for the best supporting role in 12 Years a Slave, Dilman Dila, director of the awarded The Felistas Fable or Ritesh Batra, former 2006 student, with his film The Lunchbox, shown at Cannes Festival in 2013 and which received the Viewer Choice Award during the International Critic Week, followed by many worldwide awards and nominations. Kivu Ruhorahoza has in 2015 premiered his film Things of the Aimless Wanderer at both Sundance Film Festival and Rotterdam Film Festival.


Thanks to the ACPCultures+ Programme and of the good results of the Lab, Maisha secured several contracts to ensure its sustainability:

a) Three year funding from Stichting DOEN. This ensured continuity and sustainability of the programme for screenwriters in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda for 2015 to 2017;

b) Two year funding from CKU (Danish Centre for Culture and Development) for filmmakers in Northern Uganda in the town of Gulu and Kitgum. This includes weekly film clubs, screenwriting & technical training labs, school film clubs and a two-day film festival in Northern Uganda, a first of it’s kind in this region;

c) UNESCO has issued funding for the training of 18 to 30 year olds in two towns in Uganda with the end result being the production of four short films;

d) Maisha concluded a contract sign off with HBO to train documentary filmmakers and produce two short documentaries in 2016.

Reactions from participants

Many participants found the workshops extremely useful and enriching. This is the case for Muthoni Waigwa, who declared after the seminar: “I have understood that the true backbone of any film is its story. You can have the best director, production crew and equipment but if the story lacks a central idea and essence, then the film ceases to come to life”.

Another participant, Dennis Brad Kunguru, simply confessed that  he “learned more than what I did at the university for two years”, while Edna Nyawanza Andsaid was so enthusiastic about the lab that she argued that “if I get a chance to participate in another boot camp like this one, I believe I'll come up with an African block buster.”

Augustina Urwibutso said the training improved her career. “I used to do things randomly. I could not justify why I’ve inserted a certain event. We have realised a lot of things to change, especially in film sequence. It’s really interesting,” she said.

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January 4, 2017
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