EAVE Interview with Kesmat El Sayed about Creative Producer Indaba and the ownership of African stories

"The common goal is local production with more local producers."

By Lilla Kadar

Kesmat El Sayed, EAVE graduate, Berlinale Talent 2023 and producer from Egypt, recently opened a new office in Berlin to expand SEE MEDIA Production’s premises and start growing her professional roots in Germany.

She talks about her experience participating in Creative Producer Indaba, the training programme by Realness Institute in partnership with European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs (EAVE), International Film Festival Rotterdam Pro (IFFR Pro) and Marrakech International Film Festival (Atlas Workshops) that aims to strengthen African producers' skills and promote co-production within and outside of Africa.

Why did you move to Berlin?

Being based in Egypt and working in documentary or even in fiction is kind of an impossible task as an independent producer, so it made a lot of sense for me to look for another place where there is room to grow and to integrate in the international market. Berlin is a vibrant city with a growing Arab and African community and especially in the arts and film industry. So it makes more sense to be here. Also, not many producers focus on films or artists that come from my region. 

Are you interested in producing stories about your region in Africa for the international market?

I am interested in working with locals, filmmakers who still live in their region, because that's the biggest challenge. They are the least connected, they do not have access, but they have a real presence, they are really undiscovered. At the same time with the flow of artists from the region to Europe they also want to work with a producer that understands and relates to them. 

What has changed since you moved to Europe?

I feel I have better access and understanding of the landscape as a producer since I moved. Now that I have started a company here, there has been more interest in collaboration and partnerships – I am being asked to come on board projects a lot more and have more possibilities of co-production. I think there is interest in this kind of combination of a producer who is originally from the region but based in Europe. This combination is probably comfortable for many artists and filmmakers.

Have you kept your company in Egypt? 

Yes. I have a partner in Egypt and travel there often, so it’s still possible for me to manage things from there. 

Why did you apply to Creative Producer Indaba?

This round was very interesting for me because the programme was looking for African producers who are operating outside of Africa. I wanted to participate as a career participant because I saw during the EAVE Producers Workshop how much the career participants benefit from the programme. At that moment - since I’m doing this big shift and having a different mindset and situation - I felt this was exactly the right fit.

Did it meet your expectations? What did you expect to learn? The last session in Rotterdam is still to come, that will be the highlight of the programme.

The whole team is really caring and genuine. The working sessions with the group leaders Mehret Mandefro and Diana Elbaum – both EAVE experts - were really great. I think their input and coordination and motivation of the discussion was inspiring and insightful.  As for the group of participants, they were really amazing. They all share and care so generously.  There were so many precious moments during the group work.  

Compared to the EAVE Producers Workshop, this workshop was very Africa-centric. This allows access to a space that I relate to more, yet have limited access to actually. I felt very at home in the group we had a lot in common. I can describe it as a mini-EAVE specific to our region - and not just the South or the North, but the entire African continent.

The setting of the Atlas Workshops was interesting because they took place during the Marrakech Film Festival. Since there was a market going on at the same time, we were able to meet informally with the decision makers without having to schedule a meeting. 

Indaba is a continuation of EAVE because they use the same methodology, so it feels very familiar but also more specific to me. 

I also got to meet more experts from the region and enjoyed very much following the discussions with script editors.  It is interesting that they all come from the region even if they are based outside, like Mmabatho Kau, also EAVE graduate and expert.

Can you tell me a few things that are specific to your region that now you focus more on? Are there things that are particularly important in these kinds of training related to Africa?

First of all, the issue of representation is crucial: how do we want to represent our region? It's also very interesting to discuss what the expectations are in Europe for the region and how you want to meet those expectations. For me this is a critical point because there is always some kind of mismatch of expectation. We discussed for example the differences based on how the characters are built: whether they are strong characters or victims, whether they are in certain roles, are they always poor or are they actually in decision-making positions? 

The other discussion that I found very interesting, because I work on historic and archive-based documentary films, is that all the archives in Africa are in European hands, even those that were taken or shot during colonialism. These institutions make it unattainable to produce films with reasonable budgets that would allow us to own our narrative and our history. We have been discussing how to push back and make that claim. If we produce films from our region, we have the right to make films, we have the right to tell our stories, it should not be an obstacle to pay so much money for archives.

Is it much more expensive to get this material compared to European archives?

It is relatively much more expensive, because of course the euro is much more expensive than any local currency. It's always a challenge for local productions. Especially when you are working with a filmmaker for the first time, you have limited access to funding, so you have to produce more sparingly and really take ownership of the story.

In a co-production, the European producer usually has the biggest stake in a project because they have the biggest budget that can fund the archive. So, there is an imbalance. It should not be that way.

Another very interesting presentation was given by producer Steven Markovitz from South Africa who shared with us how he is working on attracting local investors and having a bigger share in the project as a local producer. He tries to co-produce within Africa not just with Europe.  I also found this discussion very insightful on how to have more impact on a project as a smaller and weaker industry, and I think this is very relevant to our situation. 

Are there any major funds in Africa that can be approached or is it more private investment?

There are, and we also talked about how to co-produce within the region. This is something that needs a lot of interaction between producers and spaces where they meet! Usually, we always go to international festivals and meet other European producers, and it's rare to find this combination of exclusively African producers who have the time to really discuss and work and get to know each other. I think this networking effect is also a great value and outcome of Creative Producer Indaba.

I would like to apply to other Realness Institute programmes to meet and spend time with more people in the African industry.

How do you see African cinema in the long run? Do you see the industry changing? What are your thoughts on it?

I feel like the African film industry is really trying to catch up to Europe - it's going to take time, but there are so many people working towards it. I think that's amazing. There is already a lot of interest in Arabic/African content, but the problem is that it is always produced in the same way. The common goal is local production with more local producers, and if it's done that way, it's really empowering, because when you work with majority European production, the Europeans are the ones who benefit the most. There has to be a balance and something has to be given back.

Could you update me a little bit about your project BERLEEN, developed in 2021 at EAVE?

We have received funding from the Red Sea Film Foundation for development and the director Ahmad Abdalla will spend time in Berlin developing the characters and meeting local artists that he wants to feature in the film to finalise the script. At the same time, we have on board now Film Clinic the main Egyptian production and distribution company for independent films in the Arab region. 

As an emerging European producer, I believe it is a perfect start that ties both my worlds together. A story that is genuinely based in Berlin that explores the local Arab community here and that combines cast and crew from both regions. So I am very excited to be working on finding the right crew here in Berlin and securing the financing as well as growing and developing my presence and network in Berlin.


Page published 19 January 2023. Updated 23 January 2023.

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