Doing the hard-sell at Locarno Film Festival

Like these refugees returning home in 1996, film maker Joel Karekezi survived the Rwandan genocide. He now uses it as a starting point for his films Keystone

Trying to make a film in Sub-Saharan Africa can be a financial and logistical feat, but getting it to audiences can be an even bigger task. A networking event at the Locarno Film Festival is a chance for African film-makers to make their project come to life.

Jo Fahy in Locarno,

Rwandan film-maker Joel Karekezi started making films after his father was killed in the 1994 genocide. “I saw so many dead on the streets everywhere,” Karekezi tells “My first feature film was about trying to find the opportunity for forgiveness.”

His newest project tells the story of two soldiers who get lost in the jungle and have to face up to war, crime and themselves.

“It’s a struggle when you’re in a country where there’s no funding really established to help people tell their stories…getting my first feature film financed was really difficult.”

Karekezi is taking a breather between pitches to potential co-producers after a whirlwind few days at the Locarno Film Festival. He is one of 12 directors from countries such as Ghana, Mozambique and Uganda to bring a project to its Open Doors Lab, where they get a chance to pitch for Swiss funding and are introduced to producers who could help them bring their project to life. 

“We’ve had pitching sessions, learning how to talk about our project and be ready to sell it.” Karekezi adds. “This is a market. This is really why we’re here, to find financers, find co-producers and distributors.”

The four-day Lab is made up of workshops and one-on-one sessions aimed at getting the films and their makers in shape to be able to bring their features to an audience.

Script doctors

Supported by the Swiss foreign ministry’s Agency for Development and Cooperation, Open Doors also allows film-makers to meet potential co-producers and compete for three awards of funding – first prize is CHF50,000 ($55,000).

Italians Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia co-direct and write films together. At Open Doors they have been working with four African projects to develop scripts. This also involved deconstruction of the work so far and scripts, and feedback in the weeks leading up the festival.

“Prior to doing this we thought that the film-makers we would be working with might be less experienced, but there has been a wide range and the projects are really very good.” Grassadonia said.

Nodding in agreement, Piazza adds: “It can be tougher to work with Europeans…they tend to take themselves more seriously. These [African] film-makers on the other hand, have been slightly more open...they don’t all think they’re the next Kubrick”.

The process begins when the pair are handed four scripts. They read them, then talk to the writer, finding out what the scope of the story is and what is trying to be achieved.

How receptive are writers to an outsider, potentially tearing apart their carefully woven tales?

“Every time is different.” Grassadonia tells “But we try to get them to achieve what they want…there is no recipe for success.”

“We respect their intentions – maybe we see something in the script that the writer hasn’t.”

Joel Karekezi

For Karekezi, this process involved meeting the pair over the video-calling platform, Skype, while he was in Rwanda: “Before I came here I had to write another version, based on comments from Antonio and Fabio. I had to sit down and find a way to really do another draft”.

It sounds tough, but getting input from experienced screen writers in the European film market can be extremely valuable for these writers working on their early projects.

“We have been on the other side too…everybody needs script tutors, or script doctors as we’ve heard them called,” laughs Grassadonia.

From page to screen

Making the film is just one half of the battle though – getting the feature to audiences is another challenge.

Suzy Gillett describes herself as “a connector, I bring people together...and I’m an avid Facebook-er too”. The British film curator is in Locarno training and advising the Open Doors participants.

“We’re not talking about comedy blockbusters, these films will always have a small audience,” she tells

For Gillett, the distribution model is broken and in flux. “The options are limited, particularly for these kinds of [independent] films, but everyone is asking the same questions about how to get their films seen.”

She describes a complicated process, involving networking and personal recommendations, “90% of it is about who you know and trust, you have to meet people in person”. That can happen in festivals like Locarno, and if a film-maker is lucky, at bigger events like Cannes.

“Cannes is very interesting as it has African films in competition now – there are still very few, but they’re not completely on the sidelines anymore.”

Getting good co-producers on board has been an important part of gaining international exposure for Karekezi’s current project, The Mercy of the Jungle.

“For my first film I was struggling a lot as I was producing and directing and writing, but now I have a producer on board, I don’t have to worry about the finance and distribution so much, I can focus on the creative side.”

A major aim for Karekezi now is to find another co-producer to help push this side of the project along. “What’s good about the Open Doors is that the people here are specifically interested in African films, we’re not competing for their attention with Europeans and Americans.”

You can contact the author of this article, Jo Fahy, on twitter @jofahy and on Facebook

A global responsibility

Open Doors aims to promote films from areas where the lack of infrastructure and support networks are huge obstacles and where communities are still rebuilding from natural disasters or civil war.

Speaking at an Open Doors event during the festival, Swiss president Didier Burkhalter said, “Even a crisis far away from our borders has repercussions in our country, impacting on migration, security and the economy…It is in Switzerland's interests to contribute to international stability. And it is also our responsibility.”

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