Written and directed by Christine Rugurika and in co-production with 6 Production & SN Management the sitcom, Les Bijoux de l’Âme is a contemporary comedy showing the adventures of the African Diaspora.
Christine Rugurika (UK/Belgium) and Serena Nalty (UK) first worked together on the popular UK based web series Breach. They collaborate again to bring to life Belgium’s first ever sitcom about European Africans.
#TBB10 caught up with Christine to find out more on how she and Serena brought this groundbreaking project off the ground…
1# Introduce yourself…
My name is Christine Rugurika, I am originally from Burundi/Rwanda and Congo but was born and raised in Brussels (Belgium). I also lived in London for over 6 years, where I started and developed my experience in stage plays and writing my TV series.
2# You’re a writer and director, tell us how you got into the creative industry?
I’m not sure where to start… I have always written short stories but I didn’t know what to do with them. I was offered the opportunity to manage a charity in Brussels [and] with the help of some friends, we put on our first play, Cinderella under the African Fever, which I co-wrote with my friend Jacqueline Ngoya. That’s when I realised that I really loved producing shows. Then I came to live in London, where I adapted and produced the same play as I wanted the Caribbean audience to enjoy the experience. The title changed to, Cinderella under the African & Caribbean Fever. It was while touring in London that I started working with Serena, one of the actresses in the show. Some years later, I dug out a story I wrote years before; the story was long [so] I decided to make it into a series and that’s how we started the web series, Breach – Serena was the co-producer. The love for production and directing just kept growing.
3# Which came first the writing or directing and how did you evolve into doing the secondary?
Writing came first, even though my favourite is directing and producing.
4# Tell us a bit about this new series, Les Bijoux de l’Âme, how did it come about?
Les Bijoux de l’Âme has become a sitcom, after touring in Brussels for 2 years as a stage play. The production began when I returned to Brussels, as I still felt some characters from, Breach had stories to tell. I decided to develop one of the main characters, Bijou and bring awareness of domestic abuse in our society and African diaspora. It had a better response than expected, the audience were vocal and enjoyed the show. We filmed the last performance in 2016 and prepared it for broadcast on TV. Voxafrica were happy to broadcast it but as a sitcom, so we cut the play into 11 mini-episodes of 13 minutes. We are currently in post-production of Season 2 and are looking for more TV channels to broadcast it, so we can reach a wider audience. Voxafrica have already agreed it for broadcast in 2018.
5# Why the African European perspective, is this a view point you feel is overlooked? How does it differ from the lives we see in UK and American narratives?
Most of us (African European) are influenced by US black drama series’. It’s rare to find the same type of productions here in Europe in the black community but we have stories to tell and there are great talents here. I think the younger African generation in Europe are more daring and want to produce similar projects. It’s a hard road, as there is not any funding or support. Passionate writers, producers and directors must be prepared to pursue their dream by themselves for some time.
Things are slowly starting to pick up now and I think people are happy African Europeans have started making series’, short films and stage plays that their kids can relate to. I’m always surprised when we see young kids in the audience and they understand and enjoy the story. They see beautiful and talented people who look like them, talk like them and they love it.
I remember the first year, we had parents attending alone and when they came back to the next show, they brought their kids and teenagers.
The difference with the story telling in Belgium and France is that they are still very linked to Africa or the Caribbean so the reference to our home country always makes the public laugh or feel nostalgic. Apart from that, I think that the narrative is the same.
6# Who are the main characters and what’s important about the stories they are telling?
Bijou is the main character and the story starts when she decides to listen to her best friend, Nina and leave her abusive husband, Jack to whom she has been married for 5 years and has 2 kids with. Bijou takes refuge at her mum’s house, Mama Annette who isn’t supportive of her decision as Jack was taking care of her financially. Bijou goes back to college where she meets new friends, Maddie, Aissa, Rose, Gabson and her teacher Alan, whom she begins a relationship with. But Alan’s ex-wife, Sarah comes back into his life after 2 years of separation creating issues. Meanwhile, Aissa & Gabson have a ‘blurry’ relationship, as Gabson is already in a relationship and when Aissa finally decides to move on, she meets Tony, Gabson’s friend, but Gabson is determined to make sure they don’t date. Maddie is the funniest element in Bijou’s entourage, a real troublemaker and gold-digger, no man is off limits including her friend’s husband. Aissa and Rose are good friends but they start to compete for Tony’s attention.
7# You’ve partnered up again with producer Serena Nalty, you worked together previously on the Breach web series, what’s this working relationship like and how did you guys meet?
I met Serena through my first UK project, Cinderella. Working with her is easy because we share the same vision and we believe in this project. She’s more down to earth and realistic than I am. I’m a bit too ‘dreamy’ and not patient, but I think now she understands and can manage my ‘craziness’. She is also a great advice giver. I can’t remember if we ever argue; we can have different points of view but it is always addressed nicely. Since I came back to Belgium it’s been more challenging, but we manage and she comes over, learns some French (!!!) and thanks to technologies, we try to make conference calls frequently.
8# How difficult or not was it to get this production completed…what were some of the obstacles and how did you overcome them?
Where do I start? It’s very challenging to put on that show every year. I’m always wondering if I should keep going the next year. The first obstacle is money, most of the time we received a fund from the commune which does help but doesn’t cover half of our expenses. I have to find money left and right; I invest a lot of my own money too, but we are too limited and it’s becoming more challenging to produce the episodes. We are really aiming to find more sponsors and investors for our production in 2018 and / or TV who will buy our series or co-produce.
To find a real filming studio is not easy, so we have to perform in a theatre venue. Another obstacle was to make sure we have an audience because people were saying that black people don’t go to theatre, but after our first show it was easier as word of mouth worked very well and most of the time when we performed we were sold out. The most recent obstacle is for the public to understand and like the sitcom format, and be aware that they come to assist a filming. There was some confusion at the beginning.
What is really challenging is for actors to play for the audience (live) and for the cameras. They had a very heavy schedule for us to wrap 12 episodes of this season, as they all have jobs on the side. We’ve learned a lot from that season and now we know our weaknesses, what to correct, the schedules etc. so Season 3 can only be better. As soon as a problem occurs, we debrief with the production team (SN Management & 6 Production) and with the actors too and look immediately for solutions.
9# Who is your primary audience, and how well do you expect Les Bijoux de l’Âme to translate to the wider Diaspora?
Our primary audience is the African and Caribbean community but we talk about universal themes that any community can relate to. We have a good mix of European and Arabs coming to our show, even though the bigger audience is the black community. We have children from 5 to adults of 65. A good range of people.
10# Where and when can people watch the series, and where can we keep up to date with all your work?
For the moment, the pilot (performed in April 2016) is on YouTube with English subtitle so yes, English speaking people can watch and enjoy the story of Bijou and her friends and it’s a fun way to perfect their French. Season 2 is in post-production now and should be out in 2018 (we are still negotiating with some TV channels) so, we’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, people can go on our profile on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube where they will find a lot of pictures, videos etc. Hope they will enjoy it and spread the word!