Docubox: Africa will only be properly represented when we tell our own stories well

    • Festival
    • November 26, 2019
    • By Vladan Petkovic

    Read our interview with executive director Judy Kibinge and program director Peter Mudamba of Kenya-based Docubox, the only documentary fund in East Africa. How are they streamlining the entire filmmaking process—from training and development to placement and distribution—for African filmmakers? Recently funded titles include The Letter, which has just world-premiered in IDFA's Frontlight section.

    Kenya-based documentary film fund Docubox is the only financing body of its kind in East and Central Africa. Established in 2012, the fund started working in 2013 with initial support from the Ford Foundation, and went on to train filmmakers, finance documentary projects, teach producers how to target the right festivals for their pictures, and help with placement and distribution. Other international partners and financiers who provide support to the fund have included the UK's Doc Society and Comic Relief, The Skoll Foundation from the US, and Dutch fund Hivos.

    We talked to Docubox's executive director Judy Kibinge and program director Peter Mudamba about the way the fund functions, what are the biggest challenges for African documentary films and filmmakers, and for the fund itself, and how they aim to develop a scene that will bring African stories told by Africans through a point of view that Africans see themselves in.

    How did you start Docubox and how does it function?

    We formed Docubox because we realized that there was a need to support independent East African filmmakers. Since 2013, we have supported 36 film projects and filmmakers with funding, training, mentorship, and even by providing equipment. Over time, our role as an aggregator of opportunities has grown and our global partnerships continue to expand.

    Although Docubox is a fund started by filmmakers for filmmakers, we thought it important to spend a year researching filmmakers' needs, and discovered that top priorities for independent filmmakers were funding, training and networking. There was no real sense of community and nowhere to come together to share experiences or sharpen their skills. Few films managed to raise much-needed international funding and fewer still made it into major festivals or markets. Docubox proved to be the intervention they needed. The Ford Foundation proved very supportive and we were fortunate to receive a grant with few conditions attached and were therefore able to move quickly with flexibility.

    With our first batch of funding, we not only did all our research but also set up office, made our first call for applications, and dispensed our very first grants all within the space of a year.

    In our very first call in 2013, 12 filmmakers received $2,500 each for development. Of those, half went on to receive a further $20,000 in production funding. The Letter (pictured above), which has just world-premiered at IDFA, was one of the first six films funded by Docubox, and the third feature length film to complete production, hot on the heels of New Moon by Philippa Ndisi Herrman and Wahenga by Tanzanian filmmaker Amil Shivji. Next in line for completion are I am Samuel by this year’s Rory Peck Award winner Pete Murimi, and Truck Mama by Zippy Nyaruri.

    We’re proud about how Docubox has grown—our initial call for applications attracted about 30 applications, and today, six years on, some of our calls receive as close to 100 applications from hopeful filmmakers across the region.

    We at Docubox believe that financial support should always be accompanied by training, which serves the dual purpose of both sharpening skills and bringing filmmakers together to learn from each other. Carefully selected mentors take shortlisted filmmakers through the essentials on character, story, structure, and so on.

    It’s also important to support filmmakers in finishing their films. $20,000 is not enough to complete a film, so we encouraged and supported our filmmakers to learn about pitching, and helped them become more aware of international funds and labs, as documentary filmmaking is a collaborative effort and not a single funding effort. In this way, our filmmakers are able to find additional support and finish their films.

    Do you mostly fund films by first-timers or also those by more experienced filmmakers?

    Docubox is committed to talented, dedicated storytellers of all ages and experience levels. While we do not support complete novices, we are keen to identify and support emerging talent. Our first cohort of filmmakers has shown us how with determination and real support, our first time East African feature filmmakers can make world-class films.

    When we began, we knew nothing about running film funds, or how the international documentary world worked, but together, we’ve learned a lot along the way. For us at Docubox, it's all about independent documentary filmmakers with strong story ideas. It’s okay if during the process of production and filming the story morphs into something other than what they pitched to us—this is after all, documentary cinema, and our filmmakers are free to follow their stories wherever they lead.

    Which countries do the projects come from?

    The filmmakers we support are mainly Kenyan but we invite also other countries in East Africa to participate. We have, over the years, supported filmmakers from Tanzania and Uganda too. Besides funding documentaries, we also partner with other organizations on innovative additional programs.

    In 2016 we partnered with the Doc Society to do the Good Pitch in Kenya, and this was a pan-African call which saw us support films from Sierra Leone (Survivors by Arthur Pratt), and South Africa (Strike a Rock by Aliki Saragas).

    We focus on East Africa because we are a small organization with limited resources and prefer to build an effective, tightly knit and deep-rooted community of local filmmakers rather than spreading ourselves too thinly.

    What is the financing situation in the region like besides your fund?

    At the beginning we didn't understand documentary filmmaking fully ourselves, so it took five years for the first documentaries to be ready. But as we grow, learn, and also start to support shorter format films, some production timelines have shortened.

    There had to be a learning stage—what we call an axe-grinding stage—where you have to sharpen your skills before cutting the tree. In our case, what might have taken an experienced filmmakers two or three years to do, took our grantees much longer, but as evidenced by our completed films, it’s been a worthwhile journey.

    Not all of our funders and partners fully understood the intricacies of making feature documentary films and expected the productions to be ready in a year or two! Our challenges have been made greater because our first grantees were all first-time feature filmmakers. Now that the films are getting completed, we hope some of our partners will be a little more trusting, especially when they see The Letter opening at IDFA, and others soon premiering at A-List festivals like Berlinale and Sundance.

    How do you educate and train filmmakers?

    In the first three years we received and gave grants, and we brought in experienced mentors to train the filmmakers. Last year, we partnered with the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany, and together with them we train filmmakers in different departments. We've done six labs for film professionals this year and we are hoping to do another six in 2020. This has been made possible with support from the Robert Bosch Foundation who have also supported three scholarships to offer talented filmmakers a chance to study at the prestigious Filmakademie.

    Our feature film grants are always accompanied by an intense week of mentorship and training. Because training is such a big priority for us, we are always looking to forge new partnerships with organizations that can help us further this goal. These innovative programs have been shaped in partnership with organizations like Doc Society, Comic Relief, and the Skoll Foundation.

    Docubox also have contained within it a mini-film hub called The Box, where filmmakers can come to work, learn, and collaborate.

    This is our fifth time at IDFA and we take time to attend various industry events as well as the Forum to learn and network with potential partners, friends, and mentors. Through attending IDFA, as well as other festivals and markets such as Berlinale and Durban International Film Festival, we gain a deeper understanding of placement of documentaries in festivals and distribution.

    Do you think European festivals have started recognizing African cinema more than before?

    The program line-up here at IDFA this year affirms that European festivals are recognizing African cinema more. Indeed here at IDFA itself, one of the feature length competition favorites is the film Europa, “Based on a True Story” by Rwandese filmmaker Kivu Ruhorahoza. The same can be said of the program line-up at the Berlinale last year, where a number of African films were recognized with major awards.

    In East Africa there has been tremendous changes in how we make documentaries in the last five years. Those changes made it possible, for example, for the team of the Kenyan project Softie, directed and produced by Sam Soko, to go to Hot Docs and win the Cuban Hat award for best pitch in 2018. This says something about where we come from and where we are going to.

    Most people recognize that Africa has a richness in stories, but it's the execution that was a problem: the cinematography, how the story is laid down, how it is produced, graded, mixed... As our films become better, we believe responses will become more and more favorable.

    Having said this though, our first allegiance should be to grow our home audiences which are hungry for strong, well-told local stories. We believe that the key to increasing the number of great films we make lies in developing strong local audiences who demand and pay for great local work.

    The European market often tells stories about Africa through European's lenses. Africa will only be properly represented when we tell our own stories well. For Docubox, it's critical that we support films authored by authentic and diverse local voices.

    How do state funding structures react to your activities?

    Governments often attempt to dictate what kind of films are being made and which topics are to be tackled. But Kenyan artists have had a long history of telling the stories they wanted and needed to with or without government support.

    Political satirist Gado’s razor sharp cartoons and his brave political TV puppet show XYZ, as well as films like Wanuri Kahiu’s banned film Rafiki, prove that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. We strongly support freedom of expression for artists and filmmakers. We don't approve of censorship or attempts to confine storytellers to tell particular stories. We support storytellers who have a truth they want to speak be it about, whether on their belief or leanings, their creed or orientation, or even on atheism as a topical issue. It must remain their story.

    We risk being labelled agents of the West because much of our funding is from the West, but we remain hopeful of receiving more government support in the future. We currently have a very progressive and supportive film commissioner who respects and supports our vision and whose vision we similarly support.

    Karisa, the main protagonist of The Letter was able to come to Amsterdam for the film’s IDFA premiere thanks to the generous support of the Kenya Film Commission. The Kenyan Embassy in the Netherlands also sent envoys to attend the premiere. We are very warmed by these positive supportive gestures and regard these as a sign that the state increasingly recognizes the role and importance of artistic voices.

    We are fortunate that to date, none of the funds we have received have imposed restrictions on the stories we choose to support and are grateful that the freedom of expression remains at the very heart of our work.

    The Letter

    • Christopher King, Maia Lekow
    • 2019
    • 84 min

      Karisa travels from Mombasa to his grandmother in the countryside, because she has been accused of witchcraft and received a death threat. It gradually emerges who sent the threatening letter and why.

      More info

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