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For our final Tanzanian filmmaker case study, we meet wildlife photographer and camera assistant Lilian Anold.

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First speakers announced for Wildscreen Festival Tanzania

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Wildscreen Festival Tanzania Filmmaker Case Studies: Jigar Ganatra

Ahead of Wildscreen Festival Tanzania, we’re featuring a number of case studies of Tanzanian filmmakers and photographers making waves in the wildlife space. We’re starting with Jigar Ganatra, an award-winning nature and culture documentary filmmaker from Tanzania. He is also Co-founder and Chair of AFRISOS (African School of Storytelling), which mentors and develops local storytellers.

From the East African Savannah, to the lush Amazon Rainforest, and the towering peaks of the Himalayas, Jigar Ganatra’s filmmaking career has taken him around the world, documenting the ecological diversity and rich cultural heritage of regions frequently featured in nature documentaries, yet often misunderstood.

He’s since gone on to found an NGO that empowers people in these communities to tell their own stories, providing skills, equipment and mentorship to ensure the most important stories in the world get told by the people who know it best. Jigar’s own story began, however, on a bicycle.

Having grown up in the picturesque landscape of the Serengeti, he’d made his way to Toronto, Canada where he’d begun a degree in International Studies; “I was feeling frustrated, because so much of what we learn in universities and colleges on topics like these is detached from the realities of life in those places”.

He’d long had a passion for photography and filmmaking, but never had a real opportunity to develop those skills, until one day he came across an advert online for a 40-day backpacking tour of Peru with Operation Groundswell. “It was 2016. I had $400 in my bank account, no camera equipment and I didn’t know anyone in the industry – but I knew I wanted to go there and make a film.”

Funding challenges
An initial Gofundme page yielded little in the way of funding. “It didn’t go well – most of my contacts were in a similar situation and unable to support me. My visa didn’t allow for full-time employment, so that wasn’t an option. So, I spent $200 on a bike and started working as a delivery rider. For three months I cycled in the wind and rain delivering takeaways, and in my spare time watching YouTube videos on filmmaking techniques.”

By the end of this period, Jigar had enough to pay for his trip, and for his first set of kit. “I got a Lumix GH5, a drone, a gimble and a mic. I had no money after that, and only rudimentary Spanish, but off I went to Peru to make this film.”

The result was La Pachamama: A journey of reconnection, a story about indigenous leadership – a film exploring the relationship between indigenous people and the nature that surrounds them, but also rooted in their storytelling traditions.

“These people are extremely connected with nature – they believe plants have a spirit and that they have much to teach us. They communicate with nature in a way that others don’t. It was extremely inspiring for me, at a time when I was trying to find my artistic voice.”

Developing skills
What followed was an internship in India, under the mentorship of Australian documentarian Brian Rapsey.

“That whole experience, working side by side with a professional who was allowing me the space to develop my own voice, but also teaching me valuable practical skills, was the turning point. This was what made me into a professional filmmaker. Learning how to interview subjects, how to empathise with people and faithfully tell their stories – all of that were skills I honed with Brian.”

From this point Jigar was selling films, entering international festivals and competitions and beginning to gain global recognition, but for all the travelling and discoveries of that time, it was the rediscovery of home that surprised him the most.

“I came back to Tanzania as a travel programme leader, introducing American students to my homeland – the places I grew up in – for the first time, and filming our travels. When you’re doing this, it forces you to look at it with fresh eyes, and I fell in love with Tanzania all over again. I felt such a strong connection to it and realized I wanted to tell those stories, the stories of my culture, where I came from.”

It was during this period that Tanzanian filmmakers began reaching out to Jigar, asking for advice, and he became an unofficial mentor for a gaggle of young filmmakers. They began to shadow him, honing their craft on the job.

“You can go and spend three years in film school learning the theory – which is very important – but the best training you will ever get as filmmaker is in the doing. I realized there was a gap for this sort of professional experience in Tanzania, for opportunities to get out there and try things.”

AFRISOS: A new chapter
In 2020, in partnership with fellow filmmaker Frank Papushka, Jigar founded AFRISOS – an NGO with ambitions to provide those all-expenses paid, hands-on training opportunities that Tanzanian filmmakers were lacking.

“Historically there hasn’t been this opportunity for local filmmakers and the reasons for this are deep-rooted and manifold. The education system in Tanzania is not focused on creative growth, critical thinking or an explorer mindset.

“Indigenous people have this – they have connection to nature – at school they’re told to shy away from that. What has changed is more people have opened their minds to the opportunities that exist – people are studying abroad and coming back with new ideas. They need to see what’s possible.”

Even with this creative vision, however, financial barriers exist. Getting access to quality equipment is a challenge in Tanzania where there’s a large mark-up on goods, but also developing the necessary skills in a market that isn’t geared towards local filmmaking is a challenge.

“Most people get their start making films for NGOs or tour companies, as Tanzania has very few broadcasters and commissioners. Financing your own films is reliant on grants, funds and co-productions. Very few Tanzanian filmmakers are able to go through this process.

“That’s why it’s so important that Wildscreen is coming to Tanzania, and bringing with it commissioners and industry decision-makers. They need to see that the skills and talent exist here – what they need is a platform on which to grow.”

What AFRISOS has achieved already, in a short space of time, is impressive. Its first cohort of mentees have already springboarded into the industry, delivering impact in unexpected and exciting ways.

Lilian Anold, for example, went on to work with the BBC, and is now one of Tanzania’s leading wildlife photographers – one of the first women to achieve such recognition. Kingson Mazee, one of the first to enter the AFRISOS programme, is now a renowned photographer and is giving back by becoming a mentor in turn. Its first cohort is flying – and paving the way for those behind them.

Mission and vision
As for the future, Jigar is keen for the industry to re-examine its relationship with indigenous communities.

“Historically, American and European filmmakers have come to Africa to make their films. They perhaps hire a local guide, but generally they arrive with a limited budget and a set amount of time to capture wildlife. They’re not immersed in the community, and they don’t soak in that local understanding and relationship with nature.

“At AFRISOS we envision a future where local storytellers from indigenous communities are the filmmakers, sharing their natural and cultural heritage, preserving and promoting the parts of their society that are most important to them. The climate crisis has created an imperative for us all to reconnect with nature, and I firmly believe we can find the answers in the hands of the people who live closest to nature.”

This vision, however, relies on economics to work. “We can’t be dependent on money from other countries to make this work in a sustainable way. When you take the money, you co-create the narrative as well. So for a sustainable and truly homegrown creative sector to thrive, we need local sources of funding – grants, local banks investing in the industry, NGOs – we must all collaborate, pool resources and work together.

“Our message might be local, but the reach and the impact could be global. That’s the future I see for Tanzanian filmmaking – we have the opportunity to make our voices heard around the world. It’s time we took action to make that happen.”

Jigar Ganatra is speaking at Wildscreen Festival Tanzania from 6 – 7 June in Arusha, Tanzania. Find out more and buy tickets online here.