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Rwanda’s Representation in Movies: a Conversation With Filmmaker Samuel Ishimwe

Updated: May 2

After graduating from Geneva’s HEAD University, Samuel Ishimwe moved back to Rwanda to tell stories about Rwanda that have nuance and texture. His goal is to offer a completely different perspective than the movies we’ve seen so far. When talking about Rwanda’s multi-layered cultural heritage, Samuel gets all lively and passionate. But himself is full of complexity and ambivalence. I’ve always found him delicate and subtle when talking with him but also straightforward and gracefully abrupt. He can be so profound and witty in the same sentence. The kind of filmmaking he conceives in Rwanda is very pragmatic and thoughtful, and full of art.

HEAD University (Haute École d’Art et de Design) is located in Geneva, where I happen to be born and raised. While undertaking his bachelor’s degree in film, Samuel met in Geneva all of my friends as well as my family. He even did a short documentary about Urunana, a Rwandan traditional troupe that my parents co-founded with other parents that I have always considered family. It truly felt as if he had experienced what my reality there had been and everything that I love about Geneva, from the people, its streets lined with plane trees, during the summer, the terraces by the lake and the smell of roasted chestnut filling the air in fall.

I had met Samuel just a few months after I had moved to Rwanda and a few months before he moved to Geneva. After living a year in Rwanda, I flew to Geneva for a holiday and met up with Samuel.

While having dinner, I told him:

“I am so jealous of you right now, doing the school that you do and all of the experiences you are having. I am definitely moving back in a couple of months. I already have my flight ticket.“

Combined with the time I had spent in the UK, I hadn’t lived in Switzerland for seven years at that point. I was missing Geneva a lot. But also, I was not fulfilled doing the work I was doing in Rwanda. I had a job at that point, but I could only use my skills to craft marketing materials for corporate clients. And back in 2015, I couldn’t see this space moulding into the creative hub of inspiration it is becoming today.

As much as I love my time here, Samuel told me, I am definitely moving back to Rwanda once I graduate. My education is coming to an end, and I would like to take what I have learnt at my school to use it in Rwanda to make films. All the stories that I would like to tell are there.

For Samuel, the advantage of being in such a school was the access—from the equipment, networking opportunities to the independent films from which he could get inspiration. As a result, Samuel’s biggest takeaway has been to learn how to leverage what can be found on the ground—from real people, real locations, real stories—when shooting films. HEAD University has a strong stance for independent cinema and moves away from the mind-blowing blockbusters type of work.

“What I realised is that everything I am learning about independent cinema can be applied in Rwanda. Now that I have learned how to break down all of the components that make a movie, I feel these stories have always been under my nose. And I am very excited about coming back and making these films. So then, why stay in Geneva?”

Two years later, I had not moved back to Geneva, but Samuel had moved back to Kigali as he said he would. As part of his final year project, he made Imfura, for which he won the Silver Bear Jury Price in 2018 at the very prestigious Berlinale Film Festival. The film’s stunning cinematography adds its own layer to make you reflect on the story with a different lens. This piece of work indeed did what art is supposed to do—make you reflect on the story with a different lens and get in touch with the deepest parts of you.

Intrigued, I asked Samuel why he didn’t stay in Geneva as he had accomplished so much in just two years.

“Wouldn’t it be easy for you to get subsidies if you had stayed in Geneva, especially with all the recognition you got at the Berlinale?”

“Probably. But it is here that I want to be. There is so much to explore here. And to write stories about Rwanda, I need to be here.”

I couldn’t deny that. There is so much to capture here.

With time, I have learned to appreciate Rwanda’s culture even more, from the poetry to the emotional depth pulled from customs and traditions to cultural ceremonies. The country’s scenic beauty leaves you spellbound and captures your senses—just perfect for cinema.

“The joy about creating art in Rwanda, Samuel told me, is that art itself is about exploring the mysterious. There is so much poetry but also mysteriousness in the Rwandan culture… and I love that! From the way people talk, the way people greet each other to the way people talk in ceremonies.”

Samuel’s appeal about Rwandan culture is palpable, especially its potential in cinema. However, the movies that get out there about Rwanda crucially lack nuances. From Hotel Rwanda (2004), Shooting Dogs (2005) to Black Earth Rising (2018). All of these movies are not directed or produced by Rwandans, not acted by Rwandans, not even shot in Rwanda but South Africa or Ghana. In sum, the image of the Genocide against the Tutsi is deployed to make Hollywood products. The historical context is poorly utilised. The facts are oversimplified or even completely altered to obtain maximum entertainment value and profits.

“In my experience, people don’t experience Rwanda or the Rwandan story in a human way. It is always far from them. In all of these films made by Westerners, there is no empathy. When you film a rape scene, for example, and you make everything graphic, it makes me think that you don’t have any empathy for that person being raped. To me, it shows the filmmaker’s disconnection. It is far from him. And hence, black people can kill each other. Africans can rape each other… it’s fine! That’s the danger of not being connected.”

How Rwandan filmmakers move through their art is informed by how they grew up in the country, how they connect to the country and to the history of the country. And when making movies about the Genocide - if it is what they chose to do - it noticeably feels more personal and more organic as a result.

“What is it that we need for the Rwandan filmmaking scene to grow and flourish?” I have asked him.

“What we need is getting rid of that imagery that gets imposed on us, he replied. All of these movies we watch rub off on us. And so, when filmmakers write scripts, they tend to fill them with graphic violence. They think ‘machetes, gun, rape, AIDS’. And yet, what audiences want to explore in cinema is something that connects with their inner feelings. This is how you create movies that transcend boundaries because there are thousands of people who are wired the same way and connect with the same emotions, who have the same sensibilities.”

Samuel paused and finally asked me:

“Why didn’t YOU move back to Geneva? You’ve been saying how much you miss it last time we met and that you had planned to move back.”

There are several reasons as to why I ended staying; one of them was getting engaged. But before that even happened, I also felt the need to get inspiration, just like Samuel. Even if I have lived in Rwanda since the age of age 27 and even if I still have a lot of catch up to do, I do recognise Rwanda’s rich cultural heritage and the inspiration it provides to creatives. I realised that as our creativity grows and evolves, our quest for identity and meaning grows as well. Though identity comprises a wide range of facets, the heritage component is a significant one. Perhaps even the very starting point, the very core and the soul. Creative expression can only really be meaningful when we are in tune with ourselves.

“I’ve decided to stay because I, too, would like to get inspired. Staying in Rwanda means for me that I get the opportunity to stimulate my ideas further and reorient my thoughts to produce materials that have more depth and nuance. Having that said, though, as much as I am willing to get to understand this place, I cannot possibly make up for the 27 years I have lived abroad. My content may somewhat feel disconnected as well.”

“If that can reassure you, it’s not about that, Samuel replied. Even if you have lived abroad all your life, you can still do films about Rwanda. What matters is your willingness to have empathy. So, taking the time to connect with the stories you would like to tell is what will make the difference.”

I love exchanging ideas with my friend, Samuel. I always feel challenged and inspired to push myself more every time we meet. It is an excellent boost because the imposter syndrome we face when we know how little we understand in the grand scheme of things can be scary. Yet, I can change nothing about my background and all of the things I haven’t been exposed to prior to moving to the country. And therefore, as long as I am committed and other filmmakers are determined to see beyond the surface and capture the multi-dimensionless, our voice as creatives are still valid. Our voice is what will guide us. It is what will make us choose some subject matters over others. It is what will make us observe topics that we see as being conflicted or contradictory. And the Genocide is not the only topics that I or any other Rwandan filmmaker have to explore because it is definitely not the only event that informs our existence. There is no reason to restrict ourselves and think that we only have pain to sell because we don’t.

We are so much more than that, and we have many stories to tell.

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