Bitamba, Canada based filmmaker inspired by Rwanda’s transformation


Bitamba poses with the crew behind Ishyaka's production during the premiere.

He first came to the country in 1994 when the country was in turmoil. At the time, Joseph Bitamba, was an independent broadcast journalist.

He chose to take the responsibility as a witness during the war to film what was going on in the country. Due to the insecurity at that time, he entered through the Nyamata border, then crossed to Mulindi to meet his friends, for safety. He spent his time taking pictures when the genocide was at its peak.

When the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) captured Kigali, he filmed the events that occurred in the country and held some interviews with some of the country’s leaders and eye witnesses.

The birth of ‘Ishyaka’

Joseph during the premiere of 'Ishyaka'.

Bitamba chose to keep his pictures and documentary film because the only way to get funds for his documentary film was through his French sponsors yet at the time, “The relationship between France and Rwanda was not good.”

“They didn’t give me money and I didn’t give them my pictures, so I froze the project. I however promised myself that I would one day complete the documentary. I kept trying but it was very complicated because of the situation of Rwanda and Burundi,” he says.

That is how ‘Ishyaka,’ (loosely translated as Dedication) a documentary on Rwanda’s transition from the genocide came about. A project that started 20 years ago was finally premiered late last month.

The long wait was a blessing in disguise, as it provided him ample time to furnish his project because when Rwanda commemorated 20 years of the genocide against the Tutsi, Bitamba thought it was the opportune time to complete the documentary.

“The achievement of Rwanda inspired me to do what you saw last week (referring to the premiere of Ishyaka). I conducted an interview with President Paul Kagame, who was the vice president at that time.”

He quotes: “We will construct Rwanda and we will construct Kigali. We will construct Rwanda with our proper arms, mind and 20 years from now, Kigali will be the best destination to be”.

Bitamba would later relocate to Canada, but those words that stuck at the back of his head were to prepare him for the project that was to come 20 years later.

“When I came back, that is what I saw. I don’t know of any African politician who has made such achievements with such energy and enthusiasm to rebuild and construct a country.”

Alain Gauthier, founder of ‘Collectif des Parties Civiles pour le Rwanda’ (CPCR), an organisation that tracks down Genocide fugitives also features in the documentary.

He came back in 2013 after so many years to complete his script and commence the project but was blown away by what he saw.

“When I came back, I was astonished because I could not recognize Kigali. Politics or discussing politicians is not in my line of interest but my intention was to show people that an African leader can lead a country, develop it and make reconciliation through traditional options.”

“In Africa, we talk about dictators, and killings but we rarely talk about our achievements. We need to credit him and as evidenced in my project I am still a fan of President Paul Kagame,” he says with a gleaming smile.

‘Ishyaka, La Volonte De Vivre’ is a documentary film about the revival of Rwanda, 22 years after the genocide. The one hour film was released in December last year and premiered last month at Kwetu film festival amidst a large audience who hailed Bitamba for his patriotic effort.

‘Ishyaka’ has already gained momentum, as other countries and cities like Montreal, Zanzibar, Belgium and Germany are screening it already.

The documentary will be screened in various film festivals in Toronto and New York, but Bitamba’s other vision is to translate the documentary into English for a larger audience.

Bitamba’s passion for film making

Bitamba has been living in Canada for the last 14 years but refuses to define himself as a journalist, but more of a film maker and director although he practiced journalism for more than 25 years before he could become a film director. His transition from a journalist to TV and film director was a choice he made to follow his dreams.

“When I joined television my vision was to become a film director not a journalist. I refused to be a journalist because I don’t like to work like a journalist.”

“I like to give my project enough time to analyze, keep an eye on what is going on and see what people think. They are similar but journalists report yet directors dig deeper. Journalists who love their jobs may be frustrated because they do not have enough time to work on it,” he says.

He has lost count on the number of documentaries that he has produced. Now at the peak of his career, Bitamba produces short films and documentaries driven by inspiration.

Tom Ndahiro, a Genocide researcher features in the documentary.

He directed a documentary about the Burundian civil war, another one about the Batwa because “they are among the people with the worst kind of living in the world.”

He also directed several films that include one about Canadian drums.

“There are lessons everywhere. Everywhere I go I learn lessons and leave with a documentary. This is my way of contributing to society because I want to share my lessons with the world,” he says.

He is currently working on another project about issues concerning women in the Great Lakes region.

“I have been socially supported by women. I was raised by a woman since I lost my father as a little boy. I grew in the company of two sisters and in my career it has always been women helping me. I don’t know why, but even when I joined TV, it was with the help of a foreign lady.”

He hopes that people can learn from his projects and carry the message forward for generations to come.