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Philbert Aimé Mbabazi Sharangabo’s short film I Got My Things and Left won the Grand Prize of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in 2019 and screened in more than 25 film festivals. He participated in the Locarno Filmmakers Academy and Berlinale Talents. He graduated from the HEAD in Geneva and is currently developing his first feature film Spectrum.
It was a slow beginning in Geneva. Very slow. I didn’t hit the ground running. I observed. With my silence I could almost feel that I wasn’t there as my mind wandered towards the familiar. I had come to Geneva to study cinema at the Haute École d’art et de design (HEAD). My first experience living outside of my country of origin: Rwanda. I struggled with the theoretical courses. Being an avid film consumer and a self-taught filmmaker, it was the first time I had to verbalize my reactions and feelings towards a film. I didn’t talk. I was also about to turn 25. It felt like crossing a threshold, a year of no return. After 25, nothing was going to be the same. I observed, again. Evasive.
I lived in an apartment on my own. I cooked and ate alone. I had travelled all these miles to only meet myself here.
Learning not from what people tell you, but rather from how they act, speak, don’t speak, from their gestures, silences, actions and lack of them, that’s how I meet my new environment. I set out to shoot most of my work in Geneva.
As a black person growing up in Rwanda, everyone looked like me. Now I am discovering how the world looks at me, I am becoming the other.
A trip to a country in Asia with the whole university class. Me and another classmate (also black) are singled out and taken aside during a short stopover. They double check our passports and visas, the rest of our classmates (white) are only checked once and wait for us. The airport personnel scratch our papers to see if they are not fake. They make phone calls to our country of destination to see if we are really expected there. They ask us how much money we have with us. All with a friendly tone to reassure us that this is normal. We are let go just before the flight leaves us behind.
After my return to Geneva I shoot The Liberators (2016), my first short film for university. A story originally intended to be about an ex fighter in the decolonisation movements in Congo and Mozambique who hangs out at a grocery store, recounting his glorious past. Failing to find actors, I am forced to be a protagonist. It becomes a film about me trying to make that film. In the middle of this experience I meet non-professional actors who live their roles. They bring the film to life in a different shape.
Meeting people has been at the core of my filmmaking experience in Geneva. I have written roles for friends and people I came across. In places where I hang out. The stories became more personal as most of the time I only had myself to start with.
Making The Liberators was a successful experience, one that made me feel accepted in my new environment both professionally and socially. This is when Geneva started becoming my second home. By letting me experiment with cinematic form, immersing me in a creative environment that pushed my boundaries and exposed me artistically, my time in Geneva at HEAD was a defining chapter in both my cinematic path and my life.
My stay also made me become more and more interested in the notion of representation through cinema. Especially the portrayal of black people. Seeing one immigrant story after another, I’m struck by the relevance of these stories, but also worried by the monopoly they could end up taking, flooding our screens and our imaginary. Many of these films introduce me to characters that are powerless and desperate. They mostly stay in this state for the whole narrative, engaging with the audience through a sort of empathy which is near to pity. I have developed a deep to need to portray my characters in their singularity, their nuances and diversity.
My earliest relationship to cinema was forged by falling in love with characters. Admiring them and relating to them, their fears and desires, their idiosyncrasies. Filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai have been a great example and inspiration for me in this regard. Cinema that proposes encountering the other, not just her/his differences. Cinema that reminds you that it’s not about geography but about intimately connecting with the other through ways of being that evoke an echo deep within you.
By Hamza Bangash
By Rina Tsou