Screen Tests

| March 1, 2013 - 13.05UTC

Kenya needs more directors, editors, camerapeople and sound engineers – but how do you get the training to start your career? Kibera Film School student Khanali Kombo investigates the options.

Getting your first break in the movies has always been tough. It’s tough in Hollywood, and it’s certainly not easy in Nairobi. Many would-be Kenyan filmmakers and actors count themselves lucky to be shortlisted during an audition, or even merely cursed by a director. And though recent successes such as Nairobi Half Life and Leo showcased the potential for great local films, sounding a wake-up call to viewers who perhaps watched the odd Riverwood movie, that’s only half the battle.

It shouldn’t be like this. The Kenyan Draft National Film Policy, published in 2011, estimated that the film and TV industry is worth Ksh 4 billion each year, employing about 15,000 people. But – and here’s the point – it should be generating ten times that amount, and creating 250,000 jobs. Part of the problem has been a lack of vision, investment, clear regulation and direction from government and the Kenya Film Commission.

But for Kenya’s cinema scene to really blossom, we need to provide training and opportunities for aspiring filmmakers – and it’s still a struggle to find high quality and affordable training. Based on anecdotal research, I’d estimate that about 80% of people working in the field earn their experience via on-set learning and education in journalism or mass communication colleges.

Getting a foot in the door is the first challenge. As the industry is so small, there’s a network of professionals who tend to refer each other when opportunities arise, making it hard for fresh graduates and other would-be filmmakers to break into the industry. So entering this circle of trust is vital – and with a paucity of solid diplomas and longer courses available, that’s where workshops and short courses can help.

I looked at four film schools in Nairobi, offering quite different opportunities and styles of training. For budding movie-makers, the choice may be determined by fee levels or your ability to attract sponsorship.

Kibera Film School (KFS) was launched in August 2009 under the auspices of the Hot Sun Foundation, which aims to equip young Kibera residents with the skills to tell their own stories in film. It’s overall objective is social transformation through media and art.

It’s a small operation, housed in a simple residential building on Olympic estate with space for just six trainees. Trainers are former students of the school, augmented by professionals from the film and TV industry – which helps create a nurturing environment. Josphat Keya, who graduated from KFS in 2010 and is now project manager at the school, recalls: “At KFS I interacted with many talented people who have been kind enough to share their skills with trainees for free. This isn’t just a training centre – it’s more like a close-knit family where people help each other to be the best they can.”

The curriculum includes basic pre- and post-production elements, the emphasis being on gaining hands-on experience, as another graduate, Moses Oluoch Ouma, emphasises: “The very practical training made me who I am today. Everyone at the school is given an equal learning platform – so competition is fierce.”

Some KFS alumni have found work in the industry, mostly in TV and, occasionally, film production. For example, Moses is currently working at INSIGNIA Kenya, a production company whose output includes household hits such as the political satire Mheshimiwa and the award-winning drama Changing Times.

There are also other, less obvious, opportunities for gaining experience. Grishon Onyango, who graduated KFS in 2011, is now working as a cameraperson and editor with Operation Smile Kenya (a charity that offers free surgery to correct cleft palate) and Nairobi Surgical Skills Centre. While he values his training, he does recognise that the experience wasn’t for the faint of heart: “The training was practical and intensive – and had very particular challenges. In Kibera, people think that when you hold a camera you have money. I have been assaulted many times – but it’s part of the job.”

Other organisations share KFS’s aim of helping young people from lower-income areas. Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) runs courses for those aged 12-25 during school holidays, and trains up to 50 people each year. MYSA is known for offering sports opportunities but since 1998 has also run film and photography project Shootback; this inspired Irene Esonga, a camera operator and editor, who benefited from MYSA training a few years ago. “Film has sustained me through school,” she says, revealing a glimmer of hope for would-be moviemakers. “It pays my bills and even enabled me to travel to Norway for a three-month project.”

The Mwelu Foundation is another Mathare-based organisation encouraging local youth to develop their creative talents. While this article was being researched, Mwelu and MYSA jointly ran the Mathare Youth Film Festival, training kids to help turn them into visual storytellers.

Elijah Mumo, a former Mwelu trainee who now heads the Foundation’s film-making activities, is keen that the work these organisations do gains greater appreciation within Kenya. “We are well known internationally,” he says. “We have won many awards at festivals, but very little is being done to recognise our efforts locally. There are big projects in Kenya but we are always locked out due to lack of professional qualifications. Getting the right equipment is also a great challenge, but we always learn to be creative and improvise on set.”

K-Youth Media is another non-profit youth organisation, with the aim of providing a bridge to media studies for ambitious youth in the urban slums who can’t afford expensive courses. It offers centre-, school- and community-based programmes, and targets young people in the 15-24 age bracket. Courses admit 12 students and last for six months.

Jamhuri Film and Television Academy is another step up in both costs and facilities, offering courses ranging from evening classes and short courses to a full diploma. JFTA was launched in 2011 by Wilfred Kiumi, an alumnus of the Kenya Institute of Mass Communications. Having grown up in Eastlands, he recognised the need to develop the potential of Nairobi’s young people by offering proper mentorship, and was determined to offer quality training at an affordable price. Students are exposed to the industry at an early stage through a partnership with Farsight, a locally owned production house.

The Mohamed Amin Foundation, named for the acclaimed photojournalist who died during a plane hijack, was launched in 1998. It became known for its intensive two-year diploma course, but recognised that funding for such long courses was limited, so devised alternative three-week short courses. Tuition is not cheap, but training is first-class and gives students opportunities to work with state-of-the-art equipment.

There are longer options. The KIMC offers a three-year Film Video programme with options including production, directing and sound. Elsewhere, Kenyatta University runs undergraduate and postgraduate courses with options in film technology, while Multimedia University College of Kenya offers a four-year Bachelor of Film and Animation degree course.

Whatever course you take, making the leap into paid work isn’t simple. Stephen Okoth is another KFS graduate and now an editor and sound designer, having worked on the Kalasha-Award-nominated Miss Nobody. His advice? “Kenya’s film industry is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a hustle to find well-paying jobs and, when you do, it’s only for short periods. Patience pays – that’s what I’d tell any aspiring film-maker.”

Film Schools
Kibera Film School
Students undertaking a six-month foundation course, with tuition fees of Ksh 55,000, must complete three projects, but don’t have to live in Kibera or be a member of the Hot Sun Foundation to qualify. 020 2516909,,
Mwelu Foundation
The Foundation offers filmmaking and photography lessons to its members in Mathare. 0721 585157,
Mathare Youth Sports Association
MYSA offers basic training in photography and filmmaking to its members from Mathare and neighbouring low-income districts – visit one of the MYSA offices for information on membership. There are no membership or training fees. 020 2416651, 0713 750344,,, PO Box 69038-00622
K-Youth Media
This non-profit organisation runs six-month communication and film production courses. The training is free of charge, and membership costs only Ksh 100. 0719 636726, 0719 151619,,
Jamhuri Film & Television Academy
JFTA offers diplomas in various aspects of film making, including cinematography and screenwriting. Courses run for two years, costing around Ksh 173,000 per year. 020 2352221,
Mohamed Amin Foundation
An intensive three-week course in camera, sound, lighting and editing costs US$2,000. 020 4349280,

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