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Reintroducing Uganda’s Maisha Film Labs Founded By Mira Nair... 8 Years After Its Birth

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act March 17, 2012 at 12:10PM

Revisiting an initiative I first profiled during this site's early days...
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maisha

Revisiting an initiative I first profiled during this site's early days...

In 2004, filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay!, Mississipi Masala & others) founded Maisha Film Labs - a Uganda-based film training initiative (not-so unlike the Sundance Film Festival's filmmaker labs, or the IFP's filmmaker labs).

The goal of the Maisha Film Labs is to give aspiring filmmakers in the East African country the tools & knowledge to tell their own stories through film, which would then help foster a self-sustaining film industry in Uganda and vicinity, that will support and represent the interests of local audiences.

So, why Uganda?

Well... Mira Nair's award-winning 1991 film, Mississipi Masala (which starred Denzel Washington, by the way, and probably my favorite of all her films), was shot, on location, in Kampala, Uganda! AND, it's also in Uganda, in 1988, where she met her husband, scholar, Mahmood Mamdani, while she was doing research for the film; she also lives there, if the first two reasons weren't sufficient for you :)

The first Maisha workshop took place in Kampala in 2005. Since then, over 500 participants have attended Maisha labs on full scholarships, producing 29 short films that have screened in multiple international film festivals.

Past mentors and advisers include Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck (Lumumba, Moloch Tropical), Chadian filmmaker Mahamat Saleh-Haroun, (A Screaming Man, Daratt), British/Nigeria writer Biyi Bandele (Fela), Mira Nair herself, and several others.

Fast-forward to today, thanks to a Variety report on the program this morning, recognizing the important growth of Maisha Film Labs, calling it one of the largest training grounds for film talent in East Africa.

Nair recounts her mission in starting the film labs:

One so rarely sees any images from the African continent that even vaguely resemble what it is like to live here, or to struggle here -- the dignity and the power and the beauty of it... The enormous validation and entertainment one gets from seeing your own situation, and your own language, and your own struggle onscreen is a very powerful thing... If we don't tell our own stories, no one else will.

Familiar words to all of you I'm sure, given ongoing discussions we have on this site about doing just that - taking control of *our* images and stories, and countering those rather limited depictions of *us* created by others.

Nair hopes to produce what she calls a "top-flight local cinema culture," in a region with a vibrant oral storytelling tradition, but with few opportunities to translate those stories into film, and with few institutions offering formal technical training. You can say the same thing about a number of other African countries.

A little more about the program as it exists today, in 2012, either years since it was founded:

Maisha has sent more than 550 alumni into the film and TV industries across the continent, with half a dozen helmers going on to direct their own features. There are 10 programs being offered in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania, with the two flagship programs -- a two-month screenwriting and directing lab in July and August, and a month-long documentary lab -- held each year in Kampala. Students are drawn from a competitive talent pool in east Africa, with each receiving a full ride from a list of funders that includes the Doha Film Institute, the Goteborg Film Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation and a host of individual contributors.

The annual budget to run the labs? $420,000, as Nair says it's "a real hustle" to come up with the dough every year, despite the contributions from the aforementioned institutions.

To learn more about the program, like how to apply to, contribute, or sponsor it, and even watch some of the films that came out of the program, CLICK HERE to visit the Maisha Film Labs website.

I'm working to get interviews with Nair or reps for the program, as well as alumni, so stay tuned.

Watch the short video intro to the program below:


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