Monday, December 9, 2013
- Kenya’s landscapes and people have starred in many famous Hollywood films, from ‘Out of Africa’ to the latest ‘Tombraider’. But it is much rarer to see home-grown East African movies.
“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,” laments Ugandan film-maker Kalundi Robert Serumaga.
Serumaga says he cannot think of one single feature-length dramatic production on film that has been produced “by Ugandans for Ugandans” in the last 20 years.
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.
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 film-makers believe local television stations should give them more support, both in making and broadcasting home-grown programmes. Some 80 percent of airtime is currently occupied by foreign programmes, such as ‘Bold and the Beautiful’ and ‘Melrose Place’.
Odotte complains she had to pay 1,500 U.S. dollars to Kenya Television Network (KTN) to air her pilot talk show, ‘Together on the Move’.
“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 programmes that are locally made, they want us to pay for it,” she says.
KTN says they simply cannot afford to fund more locally-made programmes.
“Because we want to keep our costs low we therefore do not look more at investing in local programmes,” defends the station’s programme manager, Mburugu Gikunda.
“To make one programme, a very basic production, say a drama, an episode would cost something like 800,000 Kenya shillings (10,256 U.S. dollars) For a 30-minute programme this is not recoverable in this market unfortunately,” he says.
Gikunda says income from advertising during the show would be a quarter of that figure.
Poor quality local programming is also an issue.
“Our viewers now are a lot more discerning, a lot more critical as to what they are watching. It has to be qualitatively good in the sense that it is entertaining. We are an entertainment channel,” explains Gikunda.
“Unless and until local productions get to the level where viewers start asking for them — and viewers will not ask for them — unless the quality is good. Unfortunately we shall not do anything,” he says.
Serumaga dismisses this argument, saying quality comes with investment.
“If the production finance exists, all the other problems of technical support, of content development or distribution can then be solved. The starting problem is production finance,” he argues.
Others believe audiences do not need fancy special effects if the basic story-line interests them. For example, Nigerian and Ghanaian productions are popular even though the quality is often poor.
“We have to find a way of making them really appreciate our movies through the storytelling. The storytelling aspects of the movies do very much represent the issues in Kenya. They need to look at the story more than the quality,” says Odotte.
Jane Murago-Munene, chairperson of the Kenya National Film Association, argues that Kenyan television stations have a moral obligation to show Kenyans more programmes that are relevant to domestic audiences.
“We are reaching a point where we are saying it is not business as usual. It is not just about making money,” she warns.
“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,” she urges.
Film-makers 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 film-makers with a national database, help them cut through red tape and, most crucially, help with financing.
Industry stakeholders are hopeful that this will dramatically improve the fortunes of the Kenyan film industry.
“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, from the Exchequer for example. But I think we are on the right track” says Odotte.
The African Charter on Broadcasting says broadcasters should be required to promote and develop local content, including the introduction of minimum quotas.