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EAVE EXCLUSIVE Interview with EAVE graduate Elias Ribeiro and Mehret Mandefro

The wealth of untold stories

Interview with co-founders Elias Ribeiro (Head of Studies) and Mehret Mandefro (Group Leader) of Creative Producer Indaba (CPI), a new initiative by the African Realness Institute, in partnership with EAVE, International Film Festival Rotterdam’s IFFRPro and the Sundance Institute.

 

Is Creative Producer Indaba a similar programme with Africa as is PUENTES with Latin America and Ties that Bind with East Asia?

Elias Ribeiro: That’s right, that were the examples. We looked at both workshops very closely: How they were funded, how they were pedagogically delivered, their formats and I asked Tina Trapp this question: „Why not Africa?“ And she said: „Yes, let’s do it!“ We had been collaborating for three years; EAVE offered a scholarship to an African producer to the Producers Workshop out of our Screenwriters Residency selection of projects every year. It felt right to expand the partnership when we decided to launch a creative producing capacity building program to amplify the impact of the Residency, as lot of the projects developed struggled to find producers who are able to finance them. Being an alumnus of their training myself (2014), I knew there was no other knowledge partner that could do this better than EAVE and their 30 years experience. In 2018 we started developing the initiative, we added IFFRPro to the team, they hosted our first think tank with stakeholders from Africa and Europe in Rotterdam in January 2019, where we interrogated the Puentes and TTB formats to adapt it to something that is very relevant to Africa today. We joined forces with Sundance Institute and created a program that will look at new business models involving USA, Europe and Africa for co-production of audiovisual content.

 

What was the idea behind the founding of the Realness Institute and did you have a programme like Indaba in mind from the beginning?

Elias Ribeiro: We are actually a very small and passionate team that has been reacting to the environment we produce in. We identified this need in the development space and we thought, making indie African films by ourselves is not really enough to create a ripple effect. We said we’d rather start a movement. And when we launched Realness Screenwriters Residency in 2015, it was in that spirit of nurturing voices from the African continent who didn’t find support elsewhere. To tell brave stories and to trust their authorship and not indulge to funder’s needs or broadcaster’s recipes, that’s what we decided to invest on: bravery, great stories. After these five years and supporting 36 projects in 16 countries in Africa, we realised that very few had moved beyond that development space. And of the one’s we absorbed into our production company slate two have been made and another two are half financed. But there was this scarcity of producers that could lead these projects on the stage of international financing, completion and international distribution. We never intended to produce all these projects we supported. It was really about creating a more dynamic environment and ecosystem. And that was where Mehret and I met.

Mehret Mandefro: I had a production company in the U.S., but then I came into this market four years now, going on my fifth. I joined a new TV station, Kana TV, that grew quite rapidly, and in the process I saw first hand that it was a really growing industry without the trained professional needed to truly scale it up. I was running around like a madwoman trying to train everyone when I realized that to reform the industry and to try and scale up this effort I was going to have to team up with like-minded people invested in the developing the future of the local media ecosystem. I would say all of anglophone Africa is going through a revolution right now with streamers coming in and Pay TV coming in. We started with satellite TV and it’s growing. It’s really hard to believe, but for the over one hundred million people in Ethiopia private media only started four years ago. Prior to that it was dominated by state run TV. So it’s the beginning of an era and you need institutional support to work in such a tough environment and this is where Elias and I were very much aligned. We both felt the pain of working on our own in a tough landscape and saw the value of creating an institute to support this kind of work and others who were willing to do it. The vision of Realness Institute is to be a source of support that can safeguard, an independent voice in Africa and support independent filmmakers interested in staying and working in their local markets. As these markets continue to formalize it’s important to protect a space for independent voice and brave cinema. And of all the program offerings Indaba is really important, because producers are engines in their local markets and they have very important multiplier effect for formalizing the industry. When you have effective producers in any industry it’s the quickest way to bring about change. So Indaba is special for that reason.

 

How important is Europa for African cinema and how important is African cinema for Europe?

Elias Ribeiro: The biggest value that we have to offer is the wealth of untold stories. What Europe offers in counterpart is the financial structures that are not present in Africa. South Africa is very privileged, we have a national film fund, and a couple of regional agencies, a tax rebate system, broadcasters. Producers are able to make films using all of those instruments. That is not true for the majority of other 54 African countries. One of the things that I hope that Indaba can do by creating this network of producers is to catalyze the creation of more instruments, engagement, and governance. So I feel like there is a clear transaction of story versus economic and financial support.

At times this has been done in a manner that is unfavourable for the African producers. What you get for your Euro is a lot less if you had spent that Euro in Africa, because there is lower cost of services, the social taxes are lesser, weakened exchange rates favoring the Euro, you get much more value for your money locally. Because of co-production regulations, the spending obligations, there are strings attached that come with the money and European producers buy a big piece of real stage in these projects and contribute very small parts to the artistic process. It doesn’t feel like a balanced exchange. And this is one of the things we hope that this conversation will inspire shifts.

 

It sounds a bit like the practice of colonisation in a way ...

Mehret Mandefro: We are de-colonising cinema! Yes, but I think there is another angle we are exploring which is: Starting to think through alternative models of distribution that can be more favourable for artists. I think the opportunity here is to build new standards and make it easier for local producers to have the vocabulary and feel empowered enough when they are going into their financial negotiations. In other words, to have the technical knowledge they need to re-imagine what distribution looks like. I think one thing that makes Indaba really unique as training programme is also the focus on leadership. And what that means cross-sectoral. You know, people we let in to this first cohort are quite impressive in their own right: commissioning editors, artistic directors of festivals, not just producers, so it’s a very interesting mix. I do think we need that cross-sectoral collaboration to begin to formalize an industry and start to think through, how you advocate for new financial instruments and policies. What do you say to your governments? Those kinds of conversations are in the gambit that we have imagined for the pedagogical training.

 

When you look at the first participants of Indaba, you can see that there are less producers with a project than participants with a career development focus. Has this to do what you just said?

Mehret Mandefro: I think instead of focusing on projects we are focusing on people and skills and what they can do beyond just one project. There are people who are not just producers in the end but who play a very essential role in terms of the ecosystem whether at a broadcaster’s company or in a festival. All of these parts are what you need to build up a local market. Our goal is to have people who are going to stay in their local markets and also make a change.

 

There are only few films from Africa to be seen in German or European cinema. Do you think you can raise the visibility of African films and stories in Europe and the USA?

Mehret Mandefro: I think we have a global moment for black stories as a whole, certainly in the U.S., there is a big moment right now. I think it’s very different from when I made my first fiction film; I still remember those problematic distribution conversations. It really encapsulated the problems with the industry. Sometimes in life there is timing that helps you. I think timing is helping us right now. And the other thing is, there are so many talented voices: one of the first projects that came out of Realness won at Sundance this year (This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection). And I think that our chances of amplifying these voices have increased because of the moment. But that takes work at many different levels, In the U.S. it’s still incredibly hard to get a good deal for an African film. Even if you won audience awards at prestigious festival, that doesn’t matter. Some of those structural barriers are beyond us but it’s a good time. There is a crack in the ceiling right now.

 

How difficult is it for African producers to find a co-producer in Europe or America?

Elias Ribeiro: There is a considerable lack of trust in a black producer. A lot of the selected participants made similar statements during their interviews. You often have to go through a white person to get what you want. What I gained the most from my training at EAVE was first of all confidence in what I’m doing. And to get shown formats of what is expected from me. That made it relatively easy because once I had those templates I put them to good use – and access. Access to the decision makers, this priceless opportunity of sitting with somebody across the table, have energy and personal connection, emotional connection. We hope that we are going to bring people around the table and offer a platform for these connections to be built and the participant’s access to networks and resources – direct access.

 

What are your aims with the project in the long run?

Mehret Mandefro: First of all to increase the volume of projects that make it to the international stage. To increase the ratio of developed projects that actually get made. It would be great to train people interested in contributing to building up their local market. Because one of the things you hear in these markets is: „We need a South-to-South storytelling, South-to-South collaborations, and South-to-South co-productions. We would love to see that happen. But that requires financing schemes that are put in place in order for that to happen. So we really want to make that a possibility. We want to be a part of a movement that help make that happen and I think that is a critical part of the larger vision.

Page published 31 August 2020. Updated 1 September 2020.


Donate to the EAVE Alan Fountain International Scholarship Fund

A scholarship has been set up to honour the memory of Alan Fountain, former Head of Studies and President of EAVE, who passed away on March 3. Its goal is to enable one producer from outside the EU to participate in all three sessions of the EAVE Producers Workshop each year.

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