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Joël Karekezi — Flying Rwanda’s Flag High through Film

Between 2011, when he shot his first feature film and now, Joël Karekezi has traveled to more than 50 countries, flying Rwanda’s flag high at different film festivals and gatherings.

In September this year, his second feature film, The Mercy Of The Jungle, had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada. Since then, it has traveled to the Namur Film Festival in Belgium, Milano Film Festival in Italy, Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia, Les Arcs Film Festival in Poland, and Khouribga African Film Festival in Morocco, among others.

In October, it won the Silver Hugo Prize in the New Directors competition at the Chicago International Film Festival in the US.

At least two international TV networks, Canal Plus and TV 5 have already bought the rights to the film. According to Karekezi, the two networks “have been our partners from when the project was still at script level”.

The Mercy Of The Jungle was also the opening film at this year’s European Union Film Festival (EUFF) –Rwanda chapter, marked between November 20-December 2. The screening also doubled as the local premiere. A co-production between Rwanda, Belgium, Germany and France, the film captured the essence of the festival’s theme, Europe-Africa Linkages.

The theme could not have held any more meaning for the reclusive and unassuming filmmaker, about who little is known beyond the titles of his films.

For the two film projects to materialize, Karekezi had to stretch out of his comfort zone as a film director and dabble into other aspects of the film production value chain.

“In my filmmaking career I have had to combine so many skills to be able to make each film,” reveals the 33 year old husband and father of two.

In 2009, Karekezi made his first short film, Imbabazi: The Pardon, later developing it into a feature length film in 2011. By then, he had already written the script for The Mercy Of The Jungle, and was looking for partners.

“I wrote and directed it, and had to also produce it as well in order to source funding. As an African filmmaker you can’t afford to be just a producer, because at the end of the day you want to have a project that you can pitch to the world wide film market.”

Being a low budget movie, Karekezi contends that he would not have made the movie without knowledge in producing, and how to source funding.

For Imbabazi: The Pardon, he worked with a budget of $20,000:

“I got around $10,000 (Development Fund from the Göteborg Film Festival in Sweden) to develop the script, and then I had to shoot the film but it was really small money. I used some of the money in production, but when it run out I had to look for more money for post production.”

He turned to the Global Film Initiative in the US, which extended a further $ 10,000.  

“This is an extremely small budget to make a film,” Karekezi quips.

“I’m a director and writer, but as for producing I don’t have a choice. It’s important for you as a film maker to have skills in different areas. You’ve to understand distribution, marketing, festivals, and you have to collaborate with other producers. All these skills helped me to work with other producers and find the right partners for my second feature film, The Mercy Of The Jungle.”

But even multitasking has its limits, the filmmaker insists:

“Sometimes combining so many things also causes problems. You have to know your strengths, when to focus on one thing, and when to find partners. So many beginning filmmakers want to write, direct, and act in their movie, but sometimes it doesn’t work because some things may not be your strength.”

The Mercy Of The Jungle

“We had some comfort production wise, in terms of budget, and crew. The budget raised for production was close to one million Euros,” he explains, but hastens to add:

“But it’s still a small budget.”

Since its world premiere in September, the film has been shortlisted in more than 20 film festivals across the globe, with many more engagements still pending.

Next year, Karekezi plans to release the film in theaters in France, Belgium, and Rwanda. Already, he has acquired the services of a French distribution and sales agent for the worldwide market.

“When a film is made there are so many stages in the marketing system. It starts with festivals, because that’s where there are many opportunities for exposure through reviews, so that when it eventually hits the cinemas, people are eager to watch the film. That’s why what we are doing now is more of exposing the film to festivals. Next year we have to hit the market –theaters, and maybe VoD and DVD.”

Like many artists, Karekezi’s filmmaking journey was heavily influenced by his own turbulent past.

“I was born in Gisenyi (present day Rubavu), and during the genocide I was a kid and saw what happened and even my father was killed during the genocide.

I was affected and upset by the genocide, that’s why my first movie was trying to understand forgiveness. It’s a story about these two friends, one contributing to the killing of the other’s family, and when he’s released from prison, the other guy tries to avenge the blood of his family. In the end it’s about if it’s really possible to forgive.”

About The Mercy Of The Jungle he says:

“I wanted a movie about the Congo war, but I didn’t want it to be about a country fighting another country, so I settled on a simple story of the journey of these two soldiers getting lost in this environment where psychologically and emotionally they would experience things but also discover a lot about themselves and about their dreams and hopes.

It’s a story of two soldiers but it’s beyond the survival of the two soldiers and is more about humanity, and peace.”

In 2007, Karekezi embarked on an online film directing course from a school in Canada. At the time, he was studying Biology and Chemistry at the Kigali Institute of Education (KIE), “but towards my third year I decided to quit because I knew what I was going to do with my life”.

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