My main goal going to Burundi this year, as I’ve detailed, was to start a Kino and teach a screenwriting workshop. I also, of course, have to run the BFC and the endless details that keep this project alive. That’s more than enough to keep me busy. Then there are my responsibilities back home, like a day job in advertising that involves sporadic teleworking and a fledgling film review website that needs to be fed. So when I strolled into the headquarters of Festicab (Burundi’s film festival), and was asked to be the new President of the international short film jury, the manager in me was thinking “no way”. But the film geek in me couldn’t resist.
Festicab started in 2009 as a Pan African showcase to help foster a local film industry and film appreciation. We obviously have a lot in common and it’s in everyone’s interest to see the festival succeed. The staff is also filled with my former students and BFC films often dominate the local programming. In fact last month, worried he didn’t have enough homegrown submissions, festival president Léonce Ngabo found funding for the BFC to produce three short films for the festival. One of those films even made the jump into the international short film category I was presiding over. There wasn’t much fear prejudice - it’s a nice film, but the South Africas and international co-productions of the world always expose Burundi’s technical limitations.
My jury was supposed to consist of two other members - a representative from the Institute Français du Burundi and a filmmaker from neighbouring Rwanda. The Rwandan, unfortunately, delayed and delayed his trip until it was essentially too late for him to bother coming (that sounds familiar…). So in the final days, it was up to me to find a third jury member. After putting together a short list, I was more than happy when the executive producer of Na Wewe, which nominated for an Oscar last year, agreed to fill in.
Even though I’m a rabid cinephile who watched and reviewed 500 feature films last year, I rarely get to see short fiction films from Africa. So I took great pleasure seeing what else is happening out there. We had one set of DVDs to share, so we watched half of the films on our own and half in a marathon screening the night before our decision was due. And our eventual deliberation was anything but simple.
The first film I saw was by far my favourite - but it ranked last for another jury member. His top film, coincidentally, was by far the one I liked the least. In one sense this made our lives complicated, but in another way it opened up some fantastic dialogue that exposed the way we see things culturally. Where as I was often more interested in filmmaker’s innovation and restraint, another jury member was persuaded by visual flare and professional competency. In films where I saw deliberate artistic choices, someone might see errors and omissions. In stories I found too abstract and unsatisfying, another was touched emotionally without even knowing why. I live for these kind of discussions.
Tonight at the closing ceremonies, we were able to announce our final verdict (Mwansa the Great, from Zambia) and even better, see who took home the local awards. Sitting in the front, I was able to high five almost every single award recipient - usually either a BFC alumni, or in one case (winner of best short film and best script), a soon-to-be student. He has been bugging me for at least a month to take the course, even though he never took the level one training. I’ve had numerous such requests, but based on his persistence, last week I agreed he could be a teaching assistant to at least get all the information. But after his second award, I told him he just earned a seat in the class, rather than fetching me water as I had earlier joked. Some decisions eventually make themselves.