Life among the stars

Today Gilbert Ndahayo is known as a film maker in Hollywood, a voice of our country to a global audience. To up-coming film makers, he is a role model. Ndahayo’s story however was not always on a pedestal. It is a result of passion, dedication and hardwork.
Gilbert Ndahayo when he still wore dread locks (Courtesy photo).
Gilbert Ndahayo when he still wore dread locks (Courtesy photo).

Today Gilbert Ndahayo is known as a film maker in Hollywood, a voice of our country to a global audience. To up-coming film makers, he is a role model. Ndahayo’s story however was not always on a pedestal. It is a result of passion, dedication and hardwork.

The Sunday Times caught up with Ndahayo and below are excerpts about him and his incredible journey to Hollywood.
Qn: When did your career begin?

Ndahayo: I always respond to this question by referring to the popular Rwandan adage that says “ujya gukira indwara arabanza akayirata” (if you want to be healed from your sickness, you must talk about it to the world.)  I was born in the southern province of Rwanda. I learnt art early from my grand father’s stories. I dreamt of becoming a priest or an economist. Art did not seem so appealing due to its little returns.

My career in film began with a short film “Scars of my days” that was presented a year later at the New York’s Tribeca film festival. Later I joined Rwanda Cinema Centre to work and learn.

When I was visiting Tribeca film festival I was invited to speak at the United Nations on effects of genocide and racial discrimination with an excerpt of the documentary “Behind This Convent” that I was making at the time.

“Behind This Convent” is the first film ever made by a survivor of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.  The film received two prizes at its world premiere at the Zanzibar International Film Festival last year: Verona Award for Best African film in competition and Sings Award Special Commendation for Best African Documentary.

Qn: With an obvious tragedy in your past where do you draw your inspiration from?
Ndahayo: My inspiration comes from my daily life encounters; it is an artistic struggle to respond to the question “what’s this story about?” I have to define the character, confront him with realities especially difficulties and keep him alive, his/her struggle to survive becomes more interesting. For the fact, I know that the audience is very smart.

Therefore I am scared but at the same time, eager to learn how they are going to welcome my film.

There is no big formula in writing a film, it has to take a realistic picture of the story in the film, have responsibility to the story as a filmmaker (in terms of my camera’s position and my point of view) and as a social actor since a filmmaker is in constant interaction with the world.

In my work, I have to be careful so as to communicate triumph, hope and success.
Qn: What are you up to in terms of current projects and future plans?

Ndahayo: I arrived in the US last year with one clear goal, to rebuild my production company Ndahayo Films, so that it can make both feature films and drama. My dream is to produce African story-based films.

First thing first! I am scheduled to start a Masters degree in Fine Arts – Film at Columbia University. This will give me an opportunity to equip myself with modern devices in storytelling as well as the network of professionals that I have never been exposed to. After school, I will be in position to produce international acclaimed films.

Qn: Any new films to look out for?

Ndahayo: I am currently filming my new documentary “The Last Note” scheduled to be released early 2010.  I am also developing the script of “Jojo Must Die” a film set in Africa, examining a sensitive subject which is human relations in post-Genocide Rwanda.

I have learnt from doctors that a wound is well treated once it is still fresh. A film that is well made haunts the soul and inspires new hope. Let’s see it on the screen.

I am also launching Behind This Convent on DVD to easily distribute it. On a different note, I am still scouting possibilities to write a book based on my experience.

Qn: What are some of the challenges you have faced in your work and in getting where you are?

Ndahayo: Here I am, doing a job that I should hate; in the first months when I arrived in the United States, it was impossible to enter my films on any US festival. The directors here pay attention only to their products in Hollywood and Asian cinema.

They do not think a Rwandan can make a film. The worst in cinema, all cinematic values sink in favour of money. To make matters worse, there is no distribution available for African documentaries made by Africans.

New arenas such as youtube, facebook and other online platform help to promote our work. My interest to make comedies only meets negativity. 

The reaction I get as a survivor of genocide making a comedy is that people see genocide, horror and pain in a survivor and nothing else.

The arts scene like any other industry, is taking immense strain from the global financial crisis. Several film fund agencies are closing leaving film makers unemployed. 

Despite all this I am aware of my past. I know that my career is partly to explore the horizons of storytelling, as well as the power of healing that only a filmmaker can discover.

Qn: Filming in Africa, insights on that?

Ndahayo: As the Kiswahili saying goes “it does not take a day to recognize sunlight”. With digital technology, Africans are learning to produce films that matter to Africa.

The problem however is when emerging African filmmakers sacrifice quality in their films making it impossible to have viewership.

It’s a process and it will take time to excel. In the wake of the birth of cinema in Africa, it is high time that original works are given priority.

Today in Rwanda even after foreign media crews and filmmakers have made about 200 documentaries and fictions about the Rwanda Genocide, it is still hard for a Rwandan to make a film.

We have one TV station, no equipment and no funding programs for films. There is hope however in the youths’ dedication for the industry.

We learn the art of filmmaking simply by just making films. By sharing experience we can develop each other in film making.

Qn: “Never again” how do people react to it in the USA? 

Ndahayo: Adopted after the Jewish holocaust, the universally recognized cry “never again” today still remains unfulfilled.  We say it yes but we stand silent as the government of Sudan embarks on a campaign to systematically commit genocide and acts of genocide in Darfur. “Never again” remains a promise

Qn: Words to upcoming filmmakers?

Ndahayo: To be a filmmaker is to be passionate about story telling, patience, hardworking and focus are the quality of an aspiring filmmaker.

As the Rwandan cinema industry grows, I would really call on our youths to first take advantage of their own strengths as they move on and gain more hands-on experiences, they can step into independent film projects. Start by making little, tiny five minute films called shorts.
Qn: Back to school at the height of your career, why?

Ndahayo: After making three short films and a feature, receiving three awards within three years; I have come to a point where the need to pursue my education in film has replaced the need to make more films with my limited knowledge in this field.

Qn: So when should we expect you back?

Ndahayo: In 2013 to make a feature film.

Ndahayo in Cross fire

Home-New Jersey    
Marital status- single
Favourite quotation-  “The greatest journeys are the ones that bring you home”, Mira Nair’s tagline for “Namesake”.
Favourite movie- Miracle at St. Anna (2008, Spike Lee)
Favourite song-You saved me (R. Kelly)
Favourite book- Left to tell (Immaculee Ilibagiza)
Favourite dish- Afghan dish (Peshawari Chapli Kabab)