Bringing the big screen to slums

2013-08-08 00:00

FILM festivals in slums and cinemas in shipping containers — two innovative concepts presented at the “New Spaces for African Cinema” workshop at the Durban International Film Festival (Diff) last week.

Sixty percent of Nairobi’s near three-and-a-half million people live in slums. “Over a million people live in Kibera, one of the most well-known slums in Nairobi, along with Mathare,” says Federico Olivieri, currently co-ordinating the Talent Press component of Diff, but also cultural and communication manager of the Cordoba Festival of African Cinema as well as founder of the Slum Film Festival in Nairobi, now in its third year.

Born in Italy, Olivieri grew up in the Spanish coast town of Tarifa facing northern Morocco across the straits of Gibraltar. “I grew up facing Africa just 14 kilometres away. It was here that I began my fascination in knowing and understanding the other.”

After a degree in journalism, mainly devoted to studying African cinema, Olivieri spent two years in Nairobi as a cultural officer with the Spanish embassy. “I saw a huge gap between what we can know and don’t know about Nairobi, and what Nairobi actually is.”

It was there Olivieri encountered the slums of Nairobi. “Slums have negative connotations,” says Olivieri. But he also encountered two organisations: Hot Sun Foundation, working in Kibera, and Slum TV, working in Mathare. “They are agents of social transformation through media and art. They enable people to tell their own stories using new digital technologies.”

Although films were being made, they were not being seen either by the communities from which they originated or by the outside world the slum dwellers were trying to connect with. Enter the Slum Film Festival — several days of free open-air screenings on an inflatable screen set up at the main “community grounds”. “The festival starts up at the end of the day as people gather or come home from work,” says Olivieri. “It starts with music and once it gets dark the films are screened — films made by members of the slum community.

“The festival also provides a technical digital workshop and, like any other festival, we have awards.

“The idea is not to legitimise slums,” says Olivieri. “No one would like to live in a slum and it would be better if such places did not exist, but these festivals give a voice to slum people and allow them to speak to a wider audience. They also see the slums gaining a more positive attention from the media.

“The films that are made cover a range of subjects; of course, there are some that show the negative side of living in a slum, but there are also love stories and films about kids playing football. There was one that was an inspirational story about a football player who lost a leg.”

For many, the word “slum” would be regarded as a derogatory term. “But people who live in them say ‘I live in a slum’,” says Olivieri, “and we decided to keep the term because that is what they use. According to one Kibera radio presenter, the word stands for ‘simple living, uplifting minds’.”

Olivieri also quoted Roy Otello, a writer and television journalist in Kibera: “It’s only our roofs that are rusted, not our brains”.

In 2011, the festival’s focus was on Nairobi slums. “In 2012, it was east African slums and the next festival, coming up in September, will involve films made in slums in other African countries.”

As Keyan Tomaselli, director of the Centre for Communication, Media and Society (CCMS) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal observed during the workshop, when it comes to making films “exhibition is the blind spot”. The innovative slum film festivals are one solution; another is the South African ReaGilè project for which the CCMS is the strategic research partner.

“I am an engineer,” says John Eschenburg, adding, after a dramatic pause: “I make cinemas”.

Eschenburg is the driving force behind the ReaGilè project that aims at community upliftment through “co-op cinemas” made from shipping containers. “They have the potential to invest R350 million a year into the film industry in terms of profit.”

Eschenburg is ready to roll out 1 200 modular mini-cinema entertainment complexes that will bring both leisure and employment opportunities to communities who have never previously been included in formal cinema networks. He envisions the creation of about 37 000 jobs.

These fully air-conditioned, prefabricated container-based miniplexes have a 60-seat capacity and are designed to bring cost-efficient and accessible film screenings to urban and rural townships on three-metre high-definition screens, with 9,2 channel surround sound. The complexes also contain a community police centre, a care centre, as well as a 30-seat computer centre, all situated on a 400 m² stand on a public open space or at a local school. Public viewing screens are erected on the complex exterior facing a specially constructed open-air amphitheatre. “These screens can be used for sports and news channels,” says Eschenburg.

“The separate units are made from five shipping containers — they are made up in a factory — you connect up on site and within two days can be up and running.”

According to Eschenburg, ReaGilè revolutionises the South African film-distribution landscape by tapping into a 40-million strong segment of the population that would not usually access films due to the economic restraints of transport costs to city centres, or the relatively high admission fees of traditional movie complexes.

Currently, ReaGilè (a Southern Sotho word meaning “We have built”) has one miniplex operating in Katlehong near Vosloorus in Gauteng. “We have been running it for six months and it works,” says Eschenburg.

The miniplexes can be viable in a community of 10 000, according to Eschenburg. “The centres are owned by a co-operative of 27 community members who each get an equal share of the profits,” says Eschenburg. The profits are based on a client spend of R15 a visit. “That’s R7,50 for a ticket and the rest for Coke, popcorn and sweets.” Advertising space would also generate income.

The container cinemas are state of the art when it comes to sound and projection, but will the people come? “People in townships are not used to a cinema-going culture,” acknowledges Eschenburg. “But we have found that once you get them in and they then tell their friends, they come back again and again.”

Eschenburg says the owners of the complexes decide what films are shown and while he envisages the availability of such screens as a boon for independent film-makers to exhibit their product, Ster-Kinekor has also expressed interest. Similarly, the Department of Trade and Industry, although now, because of lack of follow-through on the part of the DTI according to Eschenburg, ReaGilè is seeking private sector and corporate funding.

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