“If you want to make films in Burundi, you either self-censor and you remain in the country or if you don’t, you have to flee the country,” Eddy Munyaneza, a Burundian documentary filmmaker, told Index on Censorship.
Munyaneza became fascinated in the process of filmmaking at a young age, despite the lack of cinematic resources in Burundi.
He now is the man behind the camera and has released three documentaries since 2010, two of which have drawn the ire of the Burundian government and forced Munyaneza into exile.
His first documentary — Histoire d’une haine manquée — was released in 2010 and has received awards from international and African festivals. The film is based on his personal experience of the Burundian genocide of 1993, which took place after the assassination of the country’s first democratically elected Hutu president Ndadye Melchoir. It focuses on the compassionate actions he witnessed when his Hutu neighbours saved him and his Tutsi sisters from the mass killings that swept the country. The film launched Munyaneza’s career as a filmmaker.
Munyaneza was honoured by Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza for his first film and his work was praised by government officials. But the accolades faded when he turned his camera toward Nkurunziza for his second film in 2016.
The film, Le Troisieme Vide, focused on the two-year political crisis and president’s mandate that followed Nkurunziza’s campaign for an unconstitutional third term in April 2015. During the following two years, between 500 and 2,000 people were tortured and killed, and 400,000 were exiled.
The filming of his second documentary was disrupted when Munyaneza started receiving death threats from the government’s secret service. He was forced to seek asylum in Belgium in 2016 for fear of his life. Through perseverance and passion, he quietly returned to Burundi in July 2016 and April 2017 to finish his short film.
Exile hasn’t affected Munyaneza’s work: in 2018 he released his third film, Lendemains incertains. It tells the stories of Burundians who have stayed or left the country during the 2015 political tension. He secretely returned to Burundi to capture additional footage for his new film, which premiered in Brussels at the Palace Cinema and several festivals.
“I lead a double life, my helplessness away from my loved ones, and the success of the film on the other,” he said. He continues to work in exile, but also works toward returning to Burundi to see his wife and kids who currently reside in a refugee camp in Rwanda, and to create film, photography and audio programs for aspiring Burundian filmmakers.
Gillian Trudeau from Index on Censorship spoke with Munyaneza about his award-winning documentaries and time in exile.
Index: In a country that doesn’t have an abundance of film or cinema resources, how did you become so passionate about filmmaking?
Munyaneza: I was born in a little village where there was no access to electricity or television. At the age of 7, I could go into town for Sunday worship. After the first service, I would go to the cinema in the centre of the town of Gitega. We watched American movies about the Vietnam war and karate films, as well as other action movies which are attractive to young people. After the film my friends and I would have debates about the reality and whether they had been filmed by satellites. I was always against that idea and told them that behind everything there was someone who was making the film, and I was curious to know how they did it. That’s why since that time I’ve been interested in the cinema. Unfortunately, in Burundi, there is no film school. After I finished school in 2002, I began to learn by doing. I was given the opportunity to work with a company called MENYA MEDIA which was getting into audiovisual production and I got training in lots of different things, cinema, writing, and I began to make promotional films. The more I worked, the more I learned.
Index: How would you characterise artistic freedom in Burundi today, and is that any different to when you were growing up?
Munyaneza: To be honest, Burundian cinema really got going with the arrival of digital in the 2000s. Before 2000 there was a feature film called Gito L’Ingrat which was shot in 1992 and directed by Lionce Ngabo and produced by Jacques Sando. After that, there were some productions by National Television and other documentary projects for TV made in-house by National Television. I won’t say that the artistic freedom in those days was so different from today. The evidence is that since those years, I can say after independence, there have not been Burundian filmmakers who have made films about Burundi (either fictional or factual). There were not really any Burundian films made by independent filmmakers between 1960 and 1990. The man who dared to make a film about the 1993 crisis, Kiza by Joseph Bitamba, was forced to go into exile, just as I have been forced to go into exile for my film about the events of 2015. So if you want to make films in Burundi, you either self-censor and you remain in the country or if you don’t, you have to flee the country.
Index: You began receiving threats after you made your second film, Le troisieme vide, in 2016. The film focused on the political crisis that followed the re-election of president Nkurunziza. Why do you think the film received such a reaction?
Munyaneza: Troisieme Vide is a short film which was my final project at the end of my masters in cinema at Saint Louis in Senegal. I knew that just making a film about the 2015 crisis would spark debate. Talking about the events which led to the 2015 crisis, caused by a president who ran for a third term, which he is not allowed to do by the constitution, I was sure that when this film came out I would have problems with the government. But I am not going to be silent like people who are older than me have done, who did not document what went on in Burundi from the 1960s, and have in effect just made the lie bigger. I want to escape this Burundian fate, to at least leave something for the generations to come.
Index: How did you come to the decision to leave Burundi and what did that feel like?
Munyaneza: Burundi is a beautiful country with a beautiful climate. My whole history is there – my family, my friends. It is too difficult to leave your history behind. The road into exile is something you are obliged to do. It’s not a decision, it’s a question of life or death.
Index: How is life in Belgium, being away from your wife and children?
Munyaneza: It is very difficult for me to continue to live far from my family ties. I miss my children. I remain in this state of powerlessness, unable to do anything for them, to educate them or speak to them. It is difficult to sleep without knowing under what roof they are sleeping.
Index: How has your time in exile affected your work?
Munyaneza: On the work front, there is the film which is making its way. It has been chosen for lots of festivals and awards. I have just got the prize (trophy) for best documentary at the African Movie Academy Award 2018. I was invited but I couldn’t go. I lead a double life, my helplessness away from my loved ones, and the success of the film on the other. I have been invited to several festivals to present my film, but I don’t have the right to leave the country because of my refugee status. I am under international protection here in Belgium.
Index: You have returned to your home country on several occasions to film footage for your films. What dangers are your putting yourself in by doing this? And what drives you to take these risks?
Munyaneza: I risked going back to Burundi in July 2016 and in April 2017 to finish my film. To be honest, I didn’t know how the film was going to end up and sometimes I believed that by negotiating with the politicians it could take end up differently. When you are outside (the country) you get lots of information both from pro-government people and from the opposition. The artist that I am I wanted to go and see for myself and film the situation as it was. Perhaps it was a little crazy on my part but I felt an obligation to do it.
Index: Your most recent film, Uncertain Endings, looks at the violence the country has faced since 2015. In it, you show the repression of peaceful protesters. Why are demonstrators treated in such a way and what does this say about the future of the country?
Munyaneza: The selection of Pierre Nkurunziza as the candidate for the Cndd-FDD after the party conference on 25 April provoked a wave of demonstrations in the country. The opposition and numerous civil society bodies judged that a third term for President Nkurinziza would be unconstitutional and against the Arusha accords which paved the way for the end of the long Burundian civil war (1993-2006). These young people are fighting to make sure these accords, which got the country out of a crisis and have stood for years, are followed. Unfortunately, because of this repression, we are back to where we started. In fact, we are returning to the cyclical crises which has been going on in Burundi since the 1960s. But what I learnt from the young people was that the Burundian problem was not based on ethnic divides as we were always told. There were both Hutu and Tutsi there, both taking part in defending the constitution and the Arusha accords. It is the politicians who are manipulating us.
Index: Do you hold out any hope of improvements in Burundi? Do you hope one day to be able to return to your home country?
Munyaneza: After the rain, the sun will reappear. Today it’s a little difficult, but I am sure that politicians will find a way of getting out of this crisis so that we can build this little country. I am sure that one day I’ll go back and make films about my society. I don’t just have to tell stories about the crisis. Burundi is so rich culturally, there are a lot of stories to tell in pictures.