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A scene from Togetherness Supreme, playing at VIFF 2010.

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Make a film about Africa and you might end up with a lot more than a movie. You could end up with a cause, and a project that will continue long after the credit roll fades to black. The makers of Kinshasa Symphony have been fielding a chorus of offers for donations for the ragtag symphony profiled in their documentary. And Togetherness Supreme director Nathan Collett, an Australian-American, has remained in Nairobi, where the film is set, operating a film school for the residents of the slum portrayed in his feature.

Both films are part of Africa Today, a new program at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Claus Wischmann, who is German, didn't have a particular interest in Africa, but does have an interest in music. A boy who dreamed of being a concert pianist, he grew up to make documentaries about music.

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When he heard about an orchestra somewhere in Africa where the members were building their own instruments, he decided to investigate. The Kinshasa Symphony, as he found out, is made up of more than 200 people living in Congo's chaotic capital, where poverty and war have created horrific conditions.

Wischmann, travelling to Kinshasa initially with co-director Martin Baer, was struck immediately by the conditions of the city: They arrived in a blackout, to a dark airport.

"The airport was really a mess," Wischmann said recently from Berlin. "Then we drove through the city [with]no light, no electricity. And we came to the rehearsal room and it was such a difference between the world outside and the world inside there. It was so full of energy. I couldn't believe it."

This initial impression permeates the film: The dusty chaos of Kinshasa is contrasted with the calm passion of the symphony. The musicians and singers face terrible struggles at home, but they're able to escape into the music of Beethoven or Handel - even if they're doing so on homemade instruments.

Audiences across Germany, seeing the orchestra members craft instruments out of hub caps and wood scraps, have asked to help. Wischmann has been fielding offers of musical instruments, cash and free instruction.

It's a far cry from the initial reaction he received when first pitching the film.

"If you have a film about Africa, everyone - even the cinema distributors - tell you 'Forget it: You cannot do anything with African topics; people do not want to see African topics,'" Wischmann said. "Especially Congo; if you hear the word Congo you always think about very, very bad things.

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"It's really a problem to come with an African topic and then it's classical music and then it's subtitles. Oh God, forget it."

In contrast, Kenya has a much more built-up production industry and has served as the location for dozens of films, including Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and Out of Africa. But Collett was after a more authentic picture of the Kenyan experience.

In particular, he wanted to tell stories from Kibera, an enormous Nairobi slum crammed with almost one million people. He shot the short film Kibera Kid in 2005 and was planning to expand on it with a feature. But when post-election rioting wreaked havoc on Kibera in late 2007/early 2008, he switched gears.

His new film, Togetherness Supreme, explores the tribal tensions and on-the-ground political campaign leading up to the election through the lives of three young residents. It's based on a true story.

The cast, most of the crew and all of the crew trainees were from Kibera. Witnessing the positive effects on the individuals, and the economic boost to the slum, Collett and producer Mercy Murugi decided after wrapping Togetherness Supreme to set up a film school there.

They've also been showing the film at community screenings in slums throughout Kenya, where the reaction has been extremely positive, and gratifying.

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"What people always say is: 'No, no this film wasn't made here. Who made this film? This wasn't made by Kenyans. This was not made by slum people.'" Collett said from Nairobi. "When they [realize]that a person like them could do something like this, and that they had the talent within them, that is an exciting concept."

Kinshasa Symphony plays at VIFF Oct. 8, 9 and 14. Togetherness Supreme screens Oct. 5, 13 and 15 (viff.org).

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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