’Hansel und Gretel’, a German fairytale acted by Rwandan children

Hansel and Gretel means “little brother and little sister” in German. It’s a popular German fairytale that was first published more than a hundred years ago, in 1812.

Hansel and his sister Gretel are kidnapped by a cannibalistic witch who lives deep in the forest. Her house is made of cake and confectionery. The two little siblings save their lives by outwitting her.

Niyomugabo toys with a pistol during the shoot in Stuttgart, Germany

In 1893, the tale was adapted to an opera by Engelbert Humperdink, a 19th century composer who described it as a Märchenoper (fairy tale opera).

A Rwandan-German collaboration:

Hansel and Gretel has now been adapted into a movie that will be screened in Germany in October. The film is a joint collaboration between the Opera House of Stuttgart, Germany, and the Mashirika Performing Arts and Media Company from Rwanda.

The roles of Hansel and Gretel will be played by two Rwandan children; Niyomugabo David, and Gatesi Aliane, both students at ESI Mubuga school in Karongi district, Western Province.

Last month, a German film crew from the Opera House Stuttgart visited Rwanda to start shooting the film. For two weeks, the cameras followed Niyomugabo and Aliane in Karongi and later in Kigali.

“We did some scenes in Karongi and others around Kigali, in parts that look like rural areas,” explained Hope Azeda, founder and artistic director of Mashirika.

In the film, the two kids act as siblings, though in real life they’re not. The crew had to create time for them to connect before shooting begun.

“Everything in the film is about getting lost, so we shot some scenes around Nyabugogo bus station and around some busy markets. We also shot from the Kigali Genocide Memorial and around River Nyabarongo,” explained Azeda.

On April 5th, the Rwandan crew flew to Germany where more scenes were shot. It comprised of Hope Azeda and Simon Rwema from Mashirika, and the two young actors.

Nurturing raw, young talent:

This was unlike previous productions by Mashirika, where prominent and accomplished local actors have been cast for international movie or theater roles.

The crew had to travel all the way to Karongi district in the Eastern Province to find the right actors. Asked why they had to look to the countryside, Azeda explained;

Gatesi Aliane

“We thought that children from this area are still raw and we wanted to give more opportunities to children from rural areas. They are children from very humble backgrounds. Both were orphans, which is why they really deserved the opportunity. From my experience working with young actors, once you get such an opportunity it’s a huge boost in one’s education. You get so much information than you would ever get in three years from your own school.”

Niyomugabo during the shoot in Karongi district

The idea of the director, Kirill Serebrennikov, was to produce a movie that took the story to Africa, and to show that movie simultaneously in a live performance,” explained Dr. Ann-Christine Mecke, the head of Dramaturgy at the Opera House Stuttgart.

Dramaturgy is the theory and practice of dramatic composition.

“In the movie, the director wanted to have real children, and he wanted an African environment. We selected Rwanda to shoot the movie. The two children do not get lost in the forest (like in the story), but first in Kigali, then, after a magic sleep, they find themselves in Europe, in the city center of Stuttgart,” she added.

More than just a movie:

But this is no ordinary movie; it’s a film, and at the same time a production. So the film will be screened in silence, but with a two-member opera singing songs to accompany the film. In essence, the opera will act the roles of the two actors, voicing their sentiments through song. It’s a movie with a live stage performance to go with it.

The film stars inside the Opera House Stuttgart

Niyomugabo is 13 years old, while Gatesi is 14. Both were acting in a movie for the first time.

“That’s exactly what the director wanted,” explains Azeda; “very natural children because the innocence in them is what he wanted to work with. Personally I was more interested in the experience of these two new kids on board because they are very young actors. I was more interested in how these kids were taking it all in, being directed by a Russian and managed by Germans, and then monitored by a Rwandan.”

Azeda’s team went down to ESI Mubuga School in Karongi district where auditions for the role were held.

“We gave the age range we were looking for and the headmaster picked twenty children, out of which we picked the top four. None of these kids had a passport, so everything had to be fast.”

The selected four were brought to Kigali to meet the German directors.

But there was another hurdle to jump after the auditions; getting the young actors all the requisite paper work for the journey to Germany.

“It was a lot of hell. The visa and passport were actually the easy part,” Azeda revealed.

“What was most difficult was getting an exit pass from the Ministry of Education as for children a visa is not enough.

To get an exit pass, the Minister or the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education has to get an endorsement from the legal advisor in the ministry. For that to happen we needed a letter from the mayor of Karongi, and for the mayor to write a letter, we needed endorsement from the lower local administration. The local administration also needed an endorsement from the school. We got the exit permit one hour to departure. But we were very optimistic about making the trip because we had everything in terms of documentation and endorsement from parents.”

The fact that it was their first time to fly was another challenge in itself, as they had to acclimatize to the cold weather. They also required constant translation to communicate with the Germans and Russians on set.

Fostering international collaboration:

If anything, this film project is proof of the power of artistic collaboration and networking. For Mashirika, it was a demonstration of the power of a strong artistic brand and a clear reputation:

To produce the film, the German crew from Opera House Stuttgart contacted Mark Szylagyi, a German film producer who has lived in Rwanda for three years and it is he who brought the opera house in contact with Mashirika.

While in Rwanda, Szylagyi was a media consultant at the German Society for International Corporation (GIZ).

“He worked in Kigali for three years, so he really knows how the film industry here works,” Azeda revealed.

“As a film producer I also think he sees Rwanda as an opportunity for good locations for shooting and that’s where he wants to invest. This was his first project after his contract expired.

He had been to Mashirika before and other gatherings of GIZ and I think he saw from that how we are committed and with the potential to put together any pool of actors that a film would want. That’s how he got to know about the Opera House Project and being that it was part theater and part film, he thought the project would work well with Mashirika”.

New dawn:

“For us it means new openings and new beginnings, because it’s the first time we’re working on a project like this as Mashirika and as a theater company it’s very important that people trust us, so this is probably a new beginning of a longer journey,” Azeda reveals, adding;

“We have many more projects lined up with Mark and he now knows our capacity and that’s exactly what we wanted –to prove that we can do casting, location, administration and management. So it’s an education for the children and also a great experience for us at Mashirika in terms of extending our horizons.

The film will premiere at the Opera House of Stuttgart in October, and the Rwandan crew has been invited.

“The kids will get the opportunity to see themselves on the big screen.

What Rwandans might see is the behind-the-scenes story –the making of the film because there was a different German crew that was following the shoot with their own shoot,” added Azeda before concluding;

“To be honest there’s talent in Rwanda. I just wish there were more opportunities for people.”