Having recently had her short film, Throttle Queens air on Al Jazeera, Joan Kabugu is counting her wins. Her journey has been one marked by highs and lows, but she has stuck to her passion. She is the founder of Ecila Films, which focuses on women, teens, and indigenous communities. Joan has many hours of TV content under her belt and has directed several environmental documentaries under the series, Giving Nature a Voice, and short films touching on heartfelt themes such as fatherhood and mental health. The creative is currently completing a multi-media documentary about a deaf dancer called. Sounds of Silence. She shares her journey.
Your short film Throttle Queen just aired on Al Jazeera. How does that feel?
Exhilarating, exciting and rewarding! I have come a long way from where it all began. The journey started 10 years ago when I stumbled onto a TV and radio training programme (in Medeva – Media for Development in Africa). With no background in media, I had to work extra hard when I landed an opportunity on the job, training for a political talk show production. To get to Medeva TV for the month-long training right after graduating from university, I had to walk from Nairobi CBD area to South B – a distance of four kilometres - and back daily for almost a month because I had no source of income and the bus fare I had was not sufficient. I started from the bottom, labelling camera tapes, training on camera operations and assigned a camera for cutaway shots. Maisha Film Labs was another platform that helped me grow in my early years; I submitted two of my short films and got invited to compete for a production grant two years in a row. In second year, I won and went ahead to work on my first short film - Madam Chief - a mustard seed that allowed me to not only carry the ‘writer’ credit, but also ‘director’ and ‘producer’ for the first time. My friends at Medeva came together to make the short film a success, I am forever grateful.
As a producer how have you managed to continually bag opportunities?
The biggest opportunities have come from learning. I have done this through attending workshops on writing, content creation fellowships and taking part in business and leadership training. These have made me understand the business side of things and how I can leverage my craft to make a living. When I attended the Obama Leaders Forum in 2018, Ecila Films was given a major spotlight for the work we have been doing; telling stories about women, teens, and the indigenous community. That has been our niche.
What have been some of the challenges this far?
I was recently having a discussion with fellow African creatives, trying to understand two phrases; love what you do and do what you love. This was against the backdrop that it takes a lot to make a living out of the creative industry and stick it out for the long haul. My toughest issue has been financing projects I care about, and convincing investors to come into the film space - it is hard to get a solid return on investment, unlike other industries. It has also been hard to gain traction and visibility, making it hard to reach my audiences both with my company Ecila Films and my personal profile.
How have you handled the challenge of having a steady stream of income?
Overtime, I have developed different skills and used them to multiply my revenue streams. The top three are; writing, directing, producing, and working as a production manager. I balance between doing independent content for my company, writing, and taking on production assignments. This ensures that as a creative I am not frustrated when it comes to finding jobs and paying bills.
Which have been your greatest highs as a producer?
Being part of Giving Nature a Voice, which was an award-winning environmental documentary series. We won the bBest TV Series in ZIFF Awards. This series helped me improve my storytelling ability and took me to far corners of Kenya to find stories; from Cherengani to Bogoria to Rimoi. My first two short films were sponsored by grants and investors respectively. Working on three consecutive independent films after that, has been a proud moment; I have invested in myself. These projects have not yet offered a return on investment, they have, however, served as a portfolio for me and my team and opened doors for new projects, which have been sponsored. Winning an award for a Chevrolet project by Mofilm in 2015 was another proud moment, I did Richard Turere’s Story; Lion Lights. In 2021, I won an award in New York’s Oniros Film Award for the short film “It’s All A Game.” I know the future holds even greater wins for me.
What have been some of your lowest moments?
I missed out on a few great opportunities earlier in my career because I felt inadequate. I have learned to be a loud introvert and get heard while communicating confidently and politely. Being able to work with people across the world from New York, Spain, Ethiopia and Liberia have expanded my worldview and by default made me more boisterous.
What have you discovered about yourself?
I am aggressive, which means that when I put my mind to something, I place all my cards on the table and go all in. I can take criticism; this makes it easy for me to put my work out there without fear of judgement. I am not a perfectionist, but I value exceptional excellence. That means I do not procrastinate in publishing what I want, I just ensure that I am growing in the process. I know how to plan and this has helped in saving money when it comes to film production. I rarely lose my cool, I keep the production team calm. While filming on location, one’s patience is tested and I feel like I have passed that patience test every time. When it comes to working with a team, I believe in the leadership of self. If we all bring our A-game, it is a win-win situation.
What would you count as the rewards of pursuing your dreams despite the challenges?
The reward comes in getting the chance to create more content each year, working with a diverse cast and crew from Kenya and beyond and of course being paid to do so. Being nominated for awards has increased our visibility and assured us that we are being seen and appreciated. Something as simple as getting direct feedback for stories from our viewers whether in person, over the phone, or on social media is a big deal for me.
What next for Joan?
(2021 was) a defining year for me as a film-preneur. I have won a grant as an innovator from Stanchat Women in Tech, I also started my one film per month project beginning with a Lake Baringo Story – Saving Pink Beauty, a coming of age story about a father and daughter. We recently had our first project featured on Aljazeera - Throttle Queens - for their one of a kind series Africa Direct featuring exclusively African Stories by African Filmmakers. You can check it out on YouTube. These three highlights all point to one direction; creating more stories, consistently, and for an even wider audience.
The goal of Ecila Films is to create more authentic African stories with multiple teams, stories that transform communities and create discourse and dialogue. Making our content easily available on YouTube via our channel, Ecila Films and affiliate channels such as Aljazeera, means we can have more people watch engage and dialogue. The plan is to also use our platform to launch new and upcoming storytellers and filmmakers, I know how hard it can be to break through in this industry. This is one way I can pay forward what I have benefited from other platforms.
What would you say is the importance of working towards consistent growth?
Continuous learning has made me understand different aspects of creativity, business, and leadership. I have been part of numerous fellowships, training, and workshops throughout my career: Amplify Content Creation Fellowship, Obama Leaders Fellowship, Maisha Film Labs Writers Workshop, Docubox Screenwriting Workshop, Young Africa Leaders Initiative, Women in Tech Business Incubator, Generation Africa Workshop, ZIFF Writing Workshop, Talent Campus Durban and One Fine Day Production Training, to name but a few.
I have found that consistency is the oldest formula in the book; keep at it, improve your craft, improve yourself. Improve and people will notice you before you know it, more people will be willing to pay for what you have to offer.
The other thing that has worked is becoming my own investor. I have save and foot the bill for some of my productions. Invest in the stories you love and share them with the world. Sometimes, the world needs to see you believe in yourself first before they believe in you.
In the last five years, I have worked a lot with mentors and this has allowed me to see my blind spots, personally and in the business of storytelling. I have also done a small portion of mentorship and it is something I hope I can do more of in the days to come.
Finally, there is no growth that comes from magic or presumption. All growth is intentional, and even if some opportunities find us as we work, such opportunities come because we are putting in the work to be bigger and better.
Plan out your 2022, even if you achieve only 50 per cent of what you set out to do. It is better than the five per cent you will achieve if you are not intentional about your growth.
Have an intentional New Year.