My name is Christna Letang and in August 2016, I traveled to Kigali, Rwanda with Turikumwe, Inc to volunteer to teach a film class at a summer camp. I had absolutely no idea what to expect so naturally, I was both anxious and nervous about the upcoming trip.
When we got off the plane after 18 hours of travelling, the only thing I wanted to explore was a soft bed. However, as soon as we got into the taxi and started driving across the city to our hotel, I couldn’t help but to stare out of the windows and watch the city, its people and the dangerous motos weaving in and out of the busy traffic. I couldn’t believe it; it felt like home. So much of Rwanda reminded me of the country where my parents are from: Haiti. People are actually outside talking and hanging out with each other instead of having their heads stuck in a phone, people are out on the streets selling just about anything they can to make a coin and everything in the ambiance is just about as un-American as it gets.
The day immediately after us landing was the first day of camp. I was so nervous. I’ve studied filmmaking for years but all of a sudden I couldn’t think of where to begin teaching these kids about this art. I remember being in front of the class and they were staring at me expectantly and I was just staring back at them with no idea how to lead a class. I also knew there would be a language barrier but I didn’t realize that they basically had no idea anything that I was saying. That first class, we started off with some regular warm ups that one would find themselves doing in an acting class: breathe in, breathe out, touch your toes, undulations, etc. They seemed to be enjoying this but I ran out of exercises about 10 minutes later. What to do now? I had them sit audience style and would call up about 3-4 students at a time to improv a scene in front of the class. I had no idea what they would be saying in their scenes but they seemed to be having a decent time with that. But even that got old after a little time.
So then I brought out my camera.
And that’s when things started to come together for me. And they started to get more excited. That day, we split into groups and each group shot a short story with one camera and one angle. They later sat and watched the footage on my laptop and they started to piece together the process of filmmaking from beginning to end.
The rest of the week went by a little smoother as I split the class into two groups and had them write a short film. I told them they could be anything they wanted to be and could have their films take place anywhere—even the moon—and I would find a way to create that space for the movie. I didn’t want to limit their creativity and, with those really loose guidelines, I thought that they would want to be doctors in outer space or maybe astronauts in the sea…typical out-of-this-world scenarios that kids usually come up with. What I wasn’t expecting was for them to come up with moving, socially conscious films that even adults would have trouble creating.
One film was about a girl whose mother wouldn’t let her go to school. Everyday she would watch her brother grab his backpack and head off to school while her mother forced her to do housework, a woman’s job. Eventually, a couple of girls from the school realized that she wasn’t in school and spoke to their mom who in turn spoke to the unwilling mother. After a dramatic scene, the mother then comes to a life changing decision that her daughter should and could go to school. The writer and director said that he wanted to make sure everyone knew that boys and girls should be equal.
The second film by the other group was about two orphan girls who were renting a place to stay but soon got kicked out by the landlord for not having any money to pay when they said they would. They ended up having to travel far to get to an orphanage and ask for help. The film resolves in them finding their happy ending in a couple that’s willing to adopt them. This story spoke to the reality that many kids faced in Rwanda.
In true filmmaking fashion, everything was going wrong when we were shooting these films. We had location issues, we were running low on time, props were missing, cameras were dying and patience was running thin. However, somehow we managed to pull through and I edited everyone’s film and had them exported mere minutes before we were supposed to premiere them at the end of camp showcase. I was worried that no one would be into the films but was pleasantly surprised when the crowd loved it. The kids in the camp loved seeing their friends’ faces on a big screen and the parents understood the strong messages in the films. It was the best night of my summer and I could tell that my student directors felt proud of their work and it was something they really wanted to show their friends.
Just a few days ago, a friend messaged me on WhatsApp showing me pictures of a film shoot that one of my student directors, Chalis, was currently working on. He sent me photos of the actors all dressed up and told me the premise of this new movie. He then told me that Chalis wanted him to send me these pictures so that I could see that he hasn’t forgotten what I have taught him and that he’s still continuing with filmmaking. It was literally the best message I could have received being that just a few weeks ago, I was worried about my students not learning anything that they could really use outside of the program. It also goes to show that organizations like this can truly have a lasting effect on the lives they touch.
The rest of the trip was filled with lots of fun, amazing discoveries. We met great people, ate good food and learned more about Rwanda than one could ever learn through a textbook. It was the experience of a lifetime and I would love to continue to contribute to the program in anyway possible. So much good has come from it and it is so evident in the way everyone keeps in touch even with thousands of miles between us and a 6-hour time difference. These relationships are the true embodiment of the term TURIKUMWE: We are together.