Film Special: Back to the future

| March 1, 2013 - 13.14UTC

If 2012 ended in triumph for our movie industry, with the global success of Nairobi Half Life and Leo, this year could be even better. As Kenya rides a wave of filmmaking fervour, we talk to the country’s top directors and look at how you can get involved in our exciting cinema scene…

Kenya’s film scene has evolved from propaganda productions to cutting-edge dramas – but what’s the next stage in our climb to cinematic success? Award-winning director Judy Kibinge critiques the industry’s past and present to sketch out the future challenges for the next generation of filmmakers.

We all lose ourselves in a great movie. Whether it’s catching the latest release on the big screen in town or relaxing on the couch with a DVD, there’s nothing quite like getting involved with the lives – fictitious or real – of the people we meet, and taking the ride alongside them as a story unfolds. The truth is that relatively few films made in Kenya have been commercial successes either in this country or internationally. There are many reasons for that – economic, cultural, technical – but perhaps the root reason is that, historically, we’ve struggled to define what Kenyan cinema is for.

Little Voice
In the 1980s and 90s, films across the continent depicted a romanticised Africa – one where people struggled to do the right thing, and heroic battles were waged against poverty, malaria, female genital mutilation, under-age marriages and, of course, the colonial mentality. This was before we understood that time cannot be rolled back – that whatever the colonialists had brought on their ships and on their trains was here to stay: we could not decolonise the mind as easily or quickly as we thought we could.

At that time, an ‘authentic African voice’ was one that reflected the past and skirted around most contemporary issues. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, critical reflective literature and music withered and choked in an environment that discouraged creativity and individuality; writers such as Micere Mugo and Ngugi wa  Thiong’o fled the country.

Elsewhere, Francophone West Africa took the arts very seriously. Burkina Faso, for instance, entered independence with the refreshing belief that film could inform its post-colonial identity; decades of acclaimed filmmaking followed, with movies distributed in Francophone Europe. Senegal gave birth to the ‘Father of African Film’, Ousmane Sembène. But though Francophone films won awards in Europe and are regularly featured in African Studies courses, they are little known in Africa itself outside academic circles.

In Kenya, film was considered a way to beam propaganda to the masses, and has never been central to the philosophy of nationhood and art, nor used by a leadership to build identity. As a medium, it’s been filed under the Ministry of Information rather than the Ministry of Culture – officially, its perceived role is to inform rather than reflect our culture.

The result? A succession of post-independence films that generally failed to excite and engage Kenyans or interest the world. Our films have always seemed to debate and weigh up things a little too loudly: like a self-conscious guest at a party of intellectuals talking a bit too noisily about the latest book they have just read.

Dangerous Liaisons
In 2001 I co-wrote and directed a film called Dangerous Affair, produced by Njeri Karago, who had recently returned from a dazzling career in Hollywood. When asked why she had come back, she revealed a desire to kickstart the Kenyan film industry, producing stories and films of our own.

Not that films weren’t being made. The scene encompassed directors who struggled against the odds, using 16mm and 35mm celluloid – for example, Anne Mungai, who created Saïkati in 1992.

But these were films with morals, films that meant something. What Njeri had in mind was something very different: films that entertain, stories that hold a mirror up to the face of society and help us unravel and understand who we are.

When Dangerous Affair was released by Njeri’s Baraka Films in 2002, after just a short cinema run it went pretty much straight to video. But we were bowled over by how many people watched it – friends, neighbours, total strangers. Old people as well as young. The hard-drinking, chain-smoking heroes and heroines had audiences gobsmacked; they persevered with the bad sound and less-than-perfect craftsmanship to the end and, more often than not, rewound their VHS tapes to watch the film again. And again. Strangers would come up to us at pubs and recite word-for-word entire sections of the film’s dialogue. We had anticipated a reaction, but nothing like this.

Why did it provoke such a response? I believe it’s because Dangerous Affair did something no preceding Kenyan film had done: it showed a fast-living, fast-talking, highly urbanised middle class – which had been curiously absent from screens across not just Kenya but Africa. It freed audiences to celebrate who they were: urban Africans living contemporary lifestyles.

And I like to believe that it inspired a generation of emerging filmmakers to tell whatever stories they felt like telling. The crew of Dangerous Affair were largely (with the exception of Njeri) first-timers.

I had never gone to film school, having quit my job in advertising to dive into a non-existent industry; I had certainly never directed a feature film. My first assistant director had never been a first AD before. The soundman had never done sound on a dramatic film. The stars were largely novices, the majority having never even acted in theatre or on TV. The second AD, Tosh Gitonga (on whom more later) had, if memory serves me right, just turned 20 and was contemplating a career in marketing.

The Next Generation
Nearly a decade later, the seeds have germinated and the talent is starting to blossom. In 2009 Wanuri Kahiu was nominated for 12 awards at the African Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria, winning five – no mean feat, given that at the time Nigeria boasted the second-largest film industry in the world. Her ambitious From A Whisper, a story set around the 7 August terrorist bombing in Nairobi, went on to win best narrative feature at the Pan African Film & Arts Festival in Los Angeles.

A year later, Kenyan-Ghanaian director Hawa Essuman made Soul Boy, the first of several movies produced by One Fine Day Films and supported by Germany’s DW Akademie and local production house Ginger Ink. Soul Boy won the audience award at Rotterdam.

Kenyan filmmakers are beginning, as Francophone West Africans have done for so long, to attract international interest. Lupita Nyong’o, a documentary filmmaker best known to Kenyan audiences as an actress in the Africa MTV series Shuga, left to study acting at Yale. Barely had she graduated in 2012 than was she was ‘discovered’; this year she will be seen in Twelve Years a Slave, a big-budget Hollywood film directed by Steve McQueen and starring global superstars Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender.

So Kenyan film has grown, but it has a long way to go before it comes of age. If you consider that the first Hollywood motion picture was made over 100 years ago, it becomes clear that our film industry is still in its early infancy. We don’t yet have a clear voice, or a dominant genre. On the one hand we have dramatic films such as Soul Boy and documentaries doing the global festival rounds; on the other, there is an explosion of independent films in local languages that are found in nearly every household.

Hooray for Riverwood
Originally made on minimal budgets by companies based in River Road – Kenya’s answer to Hollywood or Nollywood: ‘Riverwood’ – these local-language straight-to-DVD films have no ambitions to travel to global film festivals or garner awards. But while they may not have the best camerawork or sound, they have huge and growing audiences countrywide – a growth driven by producers who, like Nigeria’s producers and distributors, are businessmen and women rather than artistic storytellers.

What’s exciting about this development is that, while these movies may not be perfect, they are fresh and from the heart. The Riverwood filmmakers have been able to do something that others with international aspirations have not: band together to market their movies collectively.

Even more excitingly, certain spots in the heart of downtown Nairobi have become centres of filmmaking, with modestly priced sound and edit facilities. This collation of resources, talent and equipment indicates the beginnings of a true film industry – one that through word of mouth and customer loyalty is growing frenetically.

What our film industry doesn’t seem to grasp is that America is a huge, self-sustaining market, as are India and Nigeria. If you visit a film market or pitching session in Europe, you’ll see that the multinational commissioners all know each other, because funding is sought through co-productions, even across different nations.

Most recently, the directorial trinity of Germany’s Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings (creators and directors of The Matrix) jointly directed Cloud Atlas, the biggest-budget independent film in the history of cinema. So when the same Tom Tykwer comes to Kenya as executive producer of Soul Boy, Nairobi Half Life and Something Necessary, our Kenya Film Commission should be jumping at the chance to encourage local investors to get in on the action as co-financiers. Yet, instead, we step back and grumble about ‘foreigners intruding on our turf’.

The biggest problems facing Kenyan filmmaking are lack of cohesiveness and lack of awareness of the importance of building a network of filmmakers across the East Africa region to constructively criticise, challenge and applaud each other. We should found directors’ guilds and cinematography guilds to sharpen our skills. We should set up institutes and festivals that celebrate the medium and promote films to wider audiences. And we need more film associations to lobby for better terms, improve distribution networks and even approach the East African community for funds, facilities and meaningful cross-country co-productions.

We do our best in our small, isolated teams, even though we know that in the rest of the world, successful filmmakers seek to work with others, to pool talents, and build budgets and larger audiences. Collaboration is the name of the game – and in Kenya we’re just beginning to understand how to play. Our broadcasters aren’t much better, and communication between independent producers and commissioners is often fraught with tensions arising from the fact that commissioners can access cheap content from South America and Korea and cannot understand why originally produced local content costs more than the globally syndicated old content they serve up on our screens.

As the 85th Academy Awards have just been announced, filmmakers everywhere are lamenting reduced budgets, shrunken cultural funds and declining cinema seat sales – mostly thanks to the ever-expanding Internet. A huge global argument is brewing: will the cinematic experience survive the onslaught of digital filmmaking and Internet platforms? In Kenya, the argument is no different. Filmmakers and viewers are scrambling to explore Internet platforms that will supply African movies, documentaries and TV programmes on demand.

These may help solve some of the problems that plague Kenyan producers – distribution and revenue being the two key concerns. But is there a future for cinema as we know it: the wonderful experience of sitting in a theatre, among hundreds of pairs of eyes all fixed on the same screen, cheering and clapping, gasping or weeping together in a joint cinematic experience?

Shape of Things to Come
There’s good reason to hope, and even celebrate. Late last year the release of Nairobi Half Life, directed by Tosh Gitonga, sparked a revival in Kenyan cinema culture. Not since the Ghanaian love story Love Brewed in the African Pot was screened in the city over 30 years ago have Nairobians rushed to cinemas with the same excitement. This movie has done what no Kenyan film has ever before succeeded in doing: packing the cinema halls.

Initially expected to run for just a few weeks, Half Life went on to run for months and sold thousands of seats. In many ways, it has achieved what, long ago, I had hoped Dangerous Affair would do: create a buzz that would give Kenyan and East African audiences a desire to buy into the idea that our films can compete on a global stage. Nairobi Half Life was the first Kenyan film to be submitted to the Oscars – each country is invited, through a local selection panel, to submit a single film to the Oscars; this was the first deemed worthy enough by our own local panel.

This collaboration between Kenyan filmmakers and Germany’s advanced film-industry facilities has proved a winner, selling over 20,000 tickets by mid-December alone. It raised the bar for production values and offers audiences a homegrown, well-written storyline that reflects their realities in a way that both entertains and provokes thought.

And the One Fine Day stable isn’t stopping there. My new film, Something Necessary, is in cinemas now, and the next One Fine Day project, Veve, directed by Simon Mukali and written by Natasha Likimani, shoots in May 2013.

Then there’s Leo – another Nairobi-set fable itching to go global and bursting with local talent. Made by director and screenwriter Jinna Mutune, it’s the story of a young boy who wants to be a superhero and live out his dreams in his homeland. This film is important not just because of its artistic merits, but because it’s the result of investment by local financiers – a leap forward in Kenya, where our lack of real cultural funding means ‘angel investors’ are critical. For this alone, the successful production of Leo is and inspiration.

Leo and Half Life, I believe, are just the beginning: the signs of things to come.

5 to watch
Judy gives her pick of the five established and emerging filmmakers to look out for
Benji Mureithi
Known better as an editor, Benji’s creative genius and quirky creative vision shone through his directorial skills in his short film Billy Jean, featuring a Nairobi taxi driver who dresses, dances and even looks like Michael Jackson. If there’s one person with a unique quirky style, it’s Benji.
Hawa Essuman
The Ghanaian-Kenyan director of Soul Boy (2011), developed under the mentorship of Tom Tykwer in Kibera, recently won the Director’s Eye prize at the 9th African Film Festival of Córdoba in Spain; the award comes with a €25,000 prize to help fund her next film, Djin, an intriguing fantasy-tinged story based in a small Indian Ocean village.
Victor Gatonye
Victor, a talented director, has yet to break through with a big film – but success is surely on the cards. Known first as an actor, he won awards for his direction on TV series Makutano Junction and teaches in a film school. Watch this space.
Bobb Muchiri
Bobb Muchiri is a hard-to-pigeonhole animator and director whose Kichwateli offers a taste of what his imagination could bring to a bigger film project.
Mburu Kimani
Arguably the most respected director in Riverwood, Mburu Kimani’s 2007 movie The Race won an award at the inaugural Kalasha Awards for Best Riverwood Film. There’s more to come from him.

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