The Tanzanian filmmaking fraternity and industry at large is excited that Binti, a production by the Dar es Salaam-based Black Unicorn Studios is being screened by international streaming company Netflix.
It is a big deal to have any production on Netflix, and Binti has put Tanzania on the global filmmaking map for all the right reasons. The film started streaming on January 7. This came hot on the heels of Ugandan production Girl in a Yellow Jumper.
Binti, a Swahili drama film directed by Seko Shamte and co-produced by Black Unicorn Studios co-owners Alinda and Angela Ruhinda had been achieving milestones since it first showed as the opening film at the Zanzibar International Film Festival in 2021.
It went on to premier at the Jozi Film Festival in South Africa and the Pan-African Film Festival in Ouagadougou in March 8, 202, and eventually made it globally through one of the world’s largest film sales network.
But who are the people behind Black Unicorn Studios?
The EastAfrican tracked down the two sisters Alinda and Angela Ruhinda who birthed the production house, and in a short time have given us Binti.
There is a thriving filmmaking sector in Tanzania, making productions to serve the national market, but it is every filmmaker’s dream to go international. And this was the Ruhinda sisters’ dream.
Alinda, the older Ruhinda is a theatre and film producer with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications with a concentration in Advertising from the Temple University in Philadelphia, US. She spent most of her childhood in Sweden, Canada, China and Kenya where
Finished her high school in Nairobi.
She is the executive producer of all Black Unicorn Studios production where she moulds the storytelling, plans the budgets, make marketing choices and deals with intricate details such as contracts and costume choices.
The younger Ruhinda sister, Angela, was born in Canada and raised in China and Tanzania. She attended boarding school in Kenya and following in her sister’s footsteps, she Fine Art and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in the same with a major in Philosophy and minor in Literature and Film Studies at the University of Hertfordshire, England.
In 2011, Angela moved to Los Angeles to pursue a Master’s degree in Screenwriting at the New York Film Academy. She graduated in 2012 and opted to live and work in Los Angeles to pursue career in everything film.
In 2013, she sold a TV pilot titled Iman & Andy to ABC, and Whoopi Goldberg was attached as executive producer. She also wrote a TV movie for Hallmark titled Moonlight In Vermont.
She moved back to Tanzania in 2016 and together with her sister Alinda, set up Black Unicorn Studios in 2018.
The two sisters have been working since to get the company and its projects running.
They have produced two stage plays, The Big 3 and Baba’s House and the recent award-winning feature film Binti now streaming on Netflix.
Angela says the two of them have always had a passion for art, film and stuff in the creative industry since their childhood.
Inspired by Nigeria and South Africa, the biggest filmmakers on the continent, the two sisters were eager to put Tanzanian art and creativity out for the world to see, and that is how the studio came about.
“For a while, Alinda and I toyed with the idea of starting our own production company. We both love movies and television and wanted to go into business together,” says Angela of how their journey into filmmaking started.
“We were inspired by creatives such as Nigerian entertainment mogul Mo Abudu, who famously left corporate life in order to pursue her real passion,” says Angela, in awe of the Nigerian serial media entrepreneur.
Alinda chips in with that, that since taking the first step four years ago, they have never looked back.
“Look at how far Mo Abudu has come. She had to start from the ground up and we decided to do the same in 2018. We haven’t looked back since,” she says. The two took a leap of faith and registered the Black Unicorn Studios.
“We’re a very small office and we tend to hire freelancers for projects and it’s a system that’s worked for us,” explains Angela.
Binti was a realisation of their dreams to put Bongo movies on the world map. The sisters say that it wasn’t easy but their exposure and knowledge about the international market came in handy.
“We always dreamed of having a movie on Netflix and we did not want to settle for less. It is an honour to be the first Tanzanian film on this global platform. Hopefully, this will open doors for other Tanzanian filmmakers,” they say.
Binti was picked by a distributor even before it was officially screened at the Pan African film festival and the private screenings on International Women’s Day.
“We were lucky. We found a distributor and they came up with a strategy for the roll out of Binti starting with the Pan African film festival. And our first big win was at the Zanzibar International Film Festival where Binti was crowned Best Feature Film, catching the attention of Netflix officials and that’s when negotiations began,” explains Angela.
Binti was also the opening film at the prestigious annual Zanzibar film fest.
The Ruhinda sisters wanted total creative control of the project, and opted to have Black Unicorn Studios fully self-fund the Binti production to create a typical Tanzanian film. They achieved this.
The script of Binti was originally written by Maria Shoo, who won a screenwriting competition dubbed ‘Made in Africa’ by Black Unicorn Studios in a call for original Tanzanian stories by Tanzanians.
Angela and Alinda then re-wrote the storyline for the kind of film they wanted.
“We had to bet on ourselves because we knew that it would eventually pay off. But thanks to the success that we’ve had with Binti, we are in a position to have our work commissioned at home and internationally and we are already getting offers, which is amazing,” says Angela.
The Black Unicorn producers say that they always on the lookout for new but brilliant and competitive talent for their projects.
Alinda says: “We try to work with the best when it comes to the technical side of production. Our approach when it comes to actors is different, we are constantly looking for new talent. So we are big on open casting calls.”
“Anyone is welcome to try out for our productions, providing they take the job seriously. The original brains behind Binti was a first-time writer. It is amazing to see how much untapped talent we have in Tanzania.”
“This is only the beginning for Black Unicorn Studios. We hope you will all join us on this exciting ride,” says Angela, revealing that they working to get into television as well as produce other films.
“They won’t all be as heavy as Binti. We would like to explore other genres and show that we can be diverse in our storytelling,” adds Angela.
‘Binti’ is Swahili for young woman, and the film features four young women in their life struggles. The film was first screened on March 8 to mark International Women’s Day.
The stories of Tumaini, Angel, Stella and Rose, who are unknowingly connected through the personal hardships of their lives, explore a contemporary view of womanhood, a searing introspection into the sometimes painful world that women find themselves.
Tumaini is played by Bertha Robert Mloya, a first time actress.
Tumaini, a young entrepreneur, runs a mini-supermarket making her own ‘chapatis’ and riding a bicycle selling eggs. She lives with her mother after her father walked out on them 10 years ago, and works hard to stay afloat. She fails.
Angel, played by Magdalena Munisi, went to school with Tumaini. But unlike Tumaini, her life seems perfect. She owns and runs a bridal shop, with the support of a seemingly loving boyfriend, who proposes to her. But the truth is that behind closed doors, Angel is engaged to an abusive fiancé who is extremely jealous and violent. Then there is Stella, (Helen Hartmann), who is trying to conceive with no success, both naturally and through IVF. Her husband is supportive even as Stella gets desperate.
But this is not the only heartbreaking story, as we meet Rose (Godliver Gordian), a mother struggling with her special-care son. She is torn between her professional life and dedication to taking extra care of her emotionally demanding son.