I’ve worked in and observed the regional arts scene for the last three years and one thing I’m noticing is the increasing relevance of the growing film industry across East Africa.
The region is creating a niche for itself on the continental and international film scene.
With the dizzying rise to fame of Kenyan starlet Lupita Nyong’o, and following the successful debuts of Nairobi Half Life and Pumzi over the last few years, Kenya has gained traction with film enthusiasts the world over. While blockbuster films including Out of Africa and The Constant Gardner were filmed in Kenya in the past, the country has only recently started to be recognised for homegrown films and as a filming hotspot. The Wachowski brothers’ hit Netflix series Sense8 was partially shot in Nairobi and features a Kenyan main character.
‘Kenya is on the right track to becoming the African film destination of choice. We have the full range of locations from beach, tropical rain forest, savannah, snow and desert.’
Government officials, and Kenya Film Commission representatives, traveled to Hollywood earlier this year to court industry executives, and to present incentives, including tax breaks and rebates, in an attempt to drum up business from the film industry and convince Hollywood to consider alternative locations to South Africa. Kenya’s cabinet secretary for sports, cultures and the arts told executives that the country is planning to give a 32 per cent rebate, as compared to South Africa’s 25 per cent reduction on expenses for foreign productions.
‘I believe that Kenya is on the right track to becoming the African film destination of choice. We have the full range of locations from beach, tropical rain forest, savannah, snow and desert. In addition to this, the Kenya Film Commission now provides a free government liaison service for filmmakers. The tax rebate will be a game changer and will be effective by early 2016,’ says Chris Foot, Chairman of the Kenya Film Commission. ‘These are exciting times for the Kenyan film and television sector.’
Kenya is not the only country in the region making waves. Ethiopia isn’t far behind. Lamb, the first Ethiopian film to be screened at Cannes, was received enthusiastically by the film community in May 2015, and premiered in Europe and North America this September. Difret, a film based on a true story, produced by Angelina Jolie, also did well. Exceptional films are currently in planning and production, and I am very excited about the upcoming biopic on the life of renowned Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey.
Recent articles have also featured Isaac Nabwana, a prolific filmmaker and founder of Uganda’s ‘Wakaliwood’, dubbed ‘Uganda’s Tarantino.’ Nabwana has caused a stir by producing viral films on a US$200 budget, and using the Nollywood model: producing as many films as possible and distributing them liberally across digital platforms. Kenya’s ‘Riverwood’ – a rapid film production industry at River Road, a bustling commercial avenue in the heart of Nairobi – has followed a similar route.
While a new generation of African talent claims its space on the global stage, the infrastructure to support the industry is also growing.
The region is gaining momentum and creating a name for itself on various different platforms. Continentally, East African countries are beginning to feature more at FESPACO, the continent’s largest film festival held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Earlier this month, Kenya and Tanzania were two of three African countries selected to be fast-tracked for the ‘spotlight’ at the DISCOP AFRICA market – launched 2008 as a pan-African film, television programmes, adaptation rights and packaged channels marketplace taking place twice a year. In Kenya, the Kalasha Film Awards seeks to stimulate the market and set benchmarks for future filmmakers.
While the new ranks of African talent begin to make a name for themselves on the global stage, the infrastructure to support the industry is also growing. Alongside festivals and conferences, there has been an increase in the number of companies working to fill the void of development, production, and distribution. Restless Global, a global studio that manages these aspects, works with creative talent from across the continent and the diaspora in both film and TV content. Restless CEO, Marie Lora-Mungai predicts that mobile video is poised for a revolution. It is only a matter of time.
While Western, Northern and Southern Africa have an established history in the international film scene, East Africa is undiscovered territory, and the possibilities are exciting.