The new ‘East African filmmaking – Riverwood and beyond’


Today’s African filmmakers come from all over the continent – but not from East Africa. At least this is what one might easily assume when reading books on African Cinema.
But now there are at least two recent productions that cannot be overlooked: Wanuri Kahiu’s “From a Whisper” (2009), which won several awards and has been touring the world’s festivals for the last two years and Caroline Kamya’s “Imani” (2010), which premiered at Berlinale 2010.
In 2008, before knowing that that there will be two award-winning films from East Africa, I decided to conduct a research the following year in three countries of the East African community: Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. I sought to learn more about the local film industry (unfortunately the term ‘industry’ is not always accurate).
East African films are rarely shown on German television; and so one is likely to assume that next to North Africa’s Egypt or Algeria only West African countries like the Senegal, Burkina Faso or Mali and South Africa, produced films.
On the one hand it is true that the internationally recognized films of the last approximately thirty to forty years mainly originated from the above regions, but we still need to be aware of the fact that there are films being produced that are worth seeing in other regions and countries of the African continent.
When I visited Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya I attended their local film festivals, like the Zanzibar International Film Festival and Kenya International Film Festival where I seized the opportunity to speak with filmmakers and other experts of the East African film industry. What I witnessed was well done productions; some with extraordinary commitment and interesting ideas.
Wanuri Kahiu  (From a Whisper) and Caroline Kamya  (Imani) are the most famous ones, and deservedly.  But there are also filmmakers like Judy Kibinge (Kenya), Lekoko Levilal (Tanzania), Daddy Ruhorahoza (Rwanda) to mention a few.
Next to cinematic films with the aim of being screened at film festivals; there are hundreds of films that can be summarized in another category. These are films, are the ones made for the local video film market and have increased rapidly in the last few years.
And with Nollywood as a model, the markets in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are being called Riverwood (referring to the Riverroad in Nairobi), Darwood (relating to Dar es Salaam) and Ugawood (for Uganda).
Production companies are spread all over the three countries and there are distribution centers especially in the main cities that sell the locally produced video films. Similar to the Nigerian home videos themes, films made, for example, in Darwood deal with issues of love and life in mainly urban settings. But in contrast to their Nigerian precursor witchcraft is not a topic.
Videos made in Uganda are mainly in local languages like Luganda and also English. And next to Western and Nigerian productions they are shown in the video halls all over the country, although it is predominantly Western and Nigerian film that are shown.
The local video market as well as the festival film productions in the East African community offer a great possibility for filmmakers to tell their own stories independently. Unfortunately often the technical and aesthetic aspects of home videos lack precision.
Films are produced in the shortest of time, i.e. in five to seven days, from the conception to completion. This allows for mistakes such as pictures having a green cast because the camera operator forgot the white balance or the cuts are more or less rough, because there has not enough time (or ambition) to work accurately.
The films have to be finished and sold quickly in order to make money before pirated copies conquer the market. In contrast to festival film this is clearly more a business than an artistic venture.
Though filmmaking in East Africa does not have such a tradition like West African countries, i.e. a different colonial film policy by the French government and filmmakers like Sembène Ousmane, their audiovisual piece still have an advantage. It contributes to an East African story telling in the 21st century.
The demand for local narratives creates the supply, however if the audience calls for better technical realization, directors and producers have to take this into account, otherwise they will sooner loose their viewers – a similar tendency that has already influenced films made in Nollywood.
I am positive that if East African filmmakers and their local supporters like festival organizers continue as they did in the last years and even improve conditions for filmmaking further, I am sure countries of the East African community will widen their print on the map of African filmmaking that has been started by the recent productions of Kahiu and Kamya.

This above commentary on East African Filmmaking has been edited to comply with our editorial word limit. If you would like to read the unedited copy of this research paper, send us an email at editorials(at)

The author: Stefanie Dresch lives and works in Berlin, Germany. She is currently working on her PhD thesis on East African filmmaking in the context of African cinema. In her thesis she explores the development of the film industry of the last five to ten years and the present situation in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya under consideration of different aspects such as conditions and modes of production and distribution, networking, historical aspects and processes and other criteria. Next to her writing and her present work in media analysis she is busy blogging African film screenings in Berlin movie theatres (