Charmed 1/2 life

| March 1, 2013 - 13.11UTC

The runaway success of Nairobi Half Life has brought Kenyan cinema to the world’s attention – and shone the spotlight on its director, Tosh Gitonga, who talks to John Sibi-Okumu about Nollywood and the next steps for our native film industry.

Was it real excrement (to use a polite word) that the lead actor was seen shovelling in a police cell in Nairobi Half Life?

It’s a question that’s been tickling my curiosity since I watched the hit movie. And who better to solve the mystery than director Tosh Gitonga? It was the first question I put to him when we met on a Sunday afternoon.

We were relaxed in the living room of his stylish flat, subtly decorated in shades of cream and maroon, and currently dominated by a large poster of Half Life. Tell-tale shrieks and admonitions emanating intermittently from an adjacent room made it clear that some of the flat’s inhabitants – his young daughter and toddler son, whose pictures adorn the walls – had been placed in temporary quarantine so that Dad and I could concentrate on the job at hand.

With a cup of tea at hand and a creamy cake on the table, we turned to the less-tasteful topic I’d raised.

“That’s the beauty of art – you play with the imagination,” Gitonga smiled. “We used Styrofoam – the whitish polystyrene foam stuff that is used in packaging to protect fragile goods. We got cucumber-shaped pieces. The guys in the art department were brilliant – they mixed colours around, then dipped the Styrofoam in and it came out looking like, er… the real thing. And there we had our solution!”

The director also shared the secrets of how a filmmaker can fake a stake being thrust through a gangster’s heart, someone being shot in the head, and a client with sadistic tendencies apparently whipping a screaming prostitute in a brothel.

If you haven’t yet seen Nairobi Half Life, this could all suggest to you it’s quite a grisly movie. And, indeed it is. Yet this tale of a young lad who sets out from a rural town to seek fame and fortune in the big city, only to fall in with an ever-more ambitious and reckless gang of robbers, does have a redemptive ending, of sorts.

But it takes more than clever effects and a happy ending to create the storm of interest that Nairobi Half Life has, enjoying greater box-office success in Kenya than any other African film for three decades – since Ghanaian Kwaw Ansah’s Love Brewed In the African Pot. To what, I wondered, would Gitonga himself attribute this phenomenal success? Genius, perhaps?

“No”, he replied modestly. “What has really helped is the times – and the technology. If we didn’t have Facebook and other social media, it would have been very difficult to get Nairobi Half Life exposed the way it has been.”

“We created a product,” he mused. “Yes, it’s a good product – but the awareness had to be built, and it was spread really fast by social media.”

The colour of money
Why had he chosen to have his film screened first in South Africa, at the 2012 Durban Film Festival – at which, to the delight of our nation, the lead actor, Joseph Wairimu, won the Best Actor award. “I started off by saying: ‘Let’s launch this film in Kenya, please, because that’s where it’s been made, and we want to attract moviegoers in our own country.’ But that was before I saw the numbers. The problem is that the statistics on people going to the cinema in Kenya are very negative. We do not have a movie-going culture any more. So, festivals help to get interest in a film from a wider public. I was very happy that it was Durban, because that meant it still premiered in Africa – and one of the things I have learned is that we still don’t have a film industry in Africa, as a whole.”

So why do Kenyans show such apathy toward homemade films? “I would say it reflects low expectations,” Gitonga replied. In that case, what’s different about this film, that it played in Kenyan cinemas for three months – and still left some people disappointed at not having been able to see it?

“We created a film that reached Hollywood levels of storytelling and production. We weren’t asking for a pat on the back for having tried. We delivered. So, hopefully, Nairobi Half Life has changed that perception, those low expectations. If we can build on that, perhaps using social media, maybe then we can grow the industry.”

Foreign funds
One interesting point about Nairobi Half Life is the input from overseas – specifically Tom Tykwer, German director and screenwriter, and co-founder of production company One Fine Day. Could Gitonga have made this film without such an experienced guardian angel? “Creatively, yes. Financially and logistically, no,”  he replied.

“Let me begin with the creative part. I would still have made this movie by myself. Tom supported me on my own terms. He didn’t offer readymade solutions but he opened up my mind to possibilities,” the director asserted. “Then I would take the route that I wanted to follow. As for finances, the film came out of a training workshop. People worked per diem instead of on salaries. We had the camera for a stipend and other equipment at drastically reduced fees. Post-production was free. All this cut down our costs enormously.”

“In its final cut, Nairobi Half Life would realistically be budgeted at Ksh 100 million,” he noted. “That’s slightly less than US$1.2 million. Now, Kenya simply doesn’t have investors who are prepared to put in that kind of money.”

So does the future of Kenyan film-making remain gloomy? “No,” Gitonga insisted. “I believe very strongly that we can only grow this industry if there is a consumer. We have a billion people on the African continent. We need to start from there. We need to start looking at Africa as a whole – not just Kenya, not just East Africa. We need to find a way of working together, collaboratively, to build an African audience first, and then build outwards toward the world at large. That’s the only way we can persuade someone to put in Ksh 50 million. If an investor sees that putting in Ksh 50 million will bring back Ksh 100 million then that makes good business sense. And that’s where we need to get to.”

The benchmark for African filmmaking has been set by Nigeria, where – we are forever being told – Nollywood is a million-dollar industry. So why not just emulate the Nigerians and be done with it?

“Nigerians love their content,” he began. “The Nigerian film industry is not concerned with form. It’s all about the story. That’s what they buy. They don’t really care about things like lighting, you know.” But there are other lessons to be learned, he reflected. “Revenues from Nollywood productions have dropped by about 50%, because Nigerian audiences have got to the point where they say: OK, we have seen this before – same old, same old. What’s next? So now you have a small crop of filmmakers in Nigeria making films on the next level, just as Nigerians have taken their music to the next level.”

He continued to warm to his theme, citing the influence of history. “It’s true that Nigeria is in a better place than we are as far as filmmaking is concerned. I think it’s because we in Kenya were exposed to Hollywood a long time ago – with films such as Out of Africa being made here – before we saw our own. For that reason our bars were raised higher, earlier, and when Kenyans do their own stuff, our audiences consider it below par and mediocre. So you could say that we have been unlucky in that way.”

And what can we do about it? “That’s the negative perception we are trying to flip with a film like Nairobi Half Life,” Gitonga says. “When I started, I said to myself: whatever happens, I want to move the industry two steps forward. I think I have moved it further.”

Get ahead in filmmaking
He reflects on his youth, when he would spend his pocket money on seeing Kung Fu movies starring Bruce Lee at Ksh 50 a go – a tenth of today’s prices. “That cinema-going culture can be brought back. And not just in Nairobi. We could have cinemas open in every town, with people all over Kenya getting to see films. And the same thing happening in the whole of East Africa and – eventually – on the whole continent. You could walk into one cinema hall and find a movie that was made in South Africa, but which you can still enjoy and relate to. And then you go somewhere else and there’s a Nigerian film being screened. That’s what I am looking forward to.”

Nairobi born and bred, Gitonga undertook business studies with the intention of becoming an accountant. However, stints as a dogsbody on the sets of productions by Baraka Films (owned by Njeri Karago, with whom he has family connections) put paid to all that. Filmmaking was the life for him, he decided, and his apprenticeship led to the role of assistant director for Changes, produced by the South African Channel M-Net.

So Gitonga’s route into the industry was via on-the-job experience. But how are Africa’s future filmmakers to learn their craft? “Again, through today’s technology,” Tosh replied confidently.

“You can find a lot of courses online – so, if you’re really keen, you can teach yourself. And I know you’re going to ask: where are we going to find good actors? Well, I’m hopeful because our actors are beginning to understand that success takes work. A few years ago this was not the case, especially in Kenya. Our actors used to think that once they were cast, they instantly became stars. The stardom came before the work. But I’ve started to see change. All my actors in Nairobi Half Life are now looking for film schools, to get into acting more seriously and to get to the next level. As for production skills, I think that they will come with learning on the ground, with learning from work experience, like we all did. But I know of a school that has already been started by a colleague of mine, and someone with huge experience in Hollywood who has come to Nairobi and offers masterclasses in acting. Then there is the Mohamed Amin Foundation, which offers courses in filmmaking with a special focus on documentaries.”

“I believe that now is the time for the government to up its game, too. It’s time for a proper institution, so that students leaving high school who are considering a career in film will have the option of university-level study right here in Kenya.”

Nairobi Half Life is Gitonga’s first feature film, made when he was only 30 years old – but is already garnering huge acclaim. It triumphed in five categories at the 2012 Kalasha Awards, Kenya’s equivalent of the Oscars: Joseph Wairimu won Best Actor, while the film bagged awards for cinematography and scriptwriting, as well as Best Feature Film. Gitonga himself was named Best Director. And Nairobi Half Life became the first ever Kenyan film to be submitted for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category.

Gongs and goals
The plaudits continue to rain down on Gitonga. In December the New Yorker magazine named him one of the most ‘fascinating’ people to come out of Africa in 2012, mentioned in the same breath as the all-time greats of African cinema.

How does he keep it all from going to his head? “I’ve been really careful about that,” he quickly responds. “I tell people close to me: please, if you feel that I’m changing, if you feel that this is not the Tosh you have always known, let me know. Because I may drift without knowing it. But so far I’ve remained grounded.” And that influences his attitude to Kenya’s film scene as a whole, too.

“We are not there yet. Until  we reach a point where we can all work happily as actors or directors, enjoying what we do year in, year out, I think we all still have a lot of work to do. But we will definitely get there.”

With that kind of innate humility and politeness (I’m sure you’ll have noted the recurrence of the word ‘please’ in his speech responses), it would be a truly spiteful person who wouldn’t wish Tosh Gitonga continued success, to the greater glory of Kenyan – and, indeed, African – filmmaking.

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