Just In Case You’re Thinking of Becoming a Film Critic in Kenya 

It’s tough staying relevant as a film critic in Kenya. Especially since I focus exclusively on Kenyan films. Kenyan films are rare. I simply have no films to review (check the date of my last review). Let me clarify this. I only review films that I know are available to the general public because I want my readers to absorb the review, go watch and then we have a discussion about like we like to do. This could either be through the cinemas or online. Hands up if you can remember the last time a Kenyan film screened at any of the few cinemas in Kenya.

While you try to remember that, I should add that I’m the only active film critic I know dedicated to Kenyan works. I can’t even form an association of film critics because I would need other people, wouldn’t I? Being alone makes it very easy to be overlooked but if we don’t have enough films, why, you would rightly ask, would we need more critics? I believe there is enough information out there about the industry that is of interest to Kenyans and the world and I can’t cover all of it alone. I am therefore embarking on a mission to producing competent film critics and writers. We need more blogs and maybe, just maybe, we could pump some vibrancy into our film scene.

The term ‘critic’ shouldn’t scare any filmmaker. I’m not malicious. Contrary to popular belief, critics don’t watch film looking for holes and weaknesses. We are on the same side here. Trashing a film is fun, (and easy), but fair assessment (though subjective) is what I promise. Filmmakers here should learn to invite critics for a press viewing of their films before they premiere. This will ensure word gets out and create some excitement around your film (and I get to watch a free movie).

It’s quite unfortunate that in conversations about the film industry happens, there is usually no mention of film critics. I find it weird that I get invited to the Durban International Film Festival, all expenses paid, but when I write to the Kenya Film Commission to involve film critics in Kalasha Awards, I get no reply. All those local films nominated for awards and subsequently screened in several towns would have benefited from reviews among other pieces of writing that might spin off from them. Our filmmakers need this kind of exposure.

Enough whining, I’m off to do my part in establishing a strong film criticism culture in Kenya.


Where Kenya Gets The Script Wrong

“It all starts with the script”
Not in Kenya. Here it generally starts with equipment, a crew, an opportunity to make some money…anything but the script. When everything has been assembled, crew and equipment, now people will look for a script, any script will do. See, in our TV sector there has been a malignant tumor of cronyism that is killing creativity and sucking the life out of any remaining creative by driving them into depression. Local content is sourced on the basis on a producer knowing the procurement guy or some executives at the stations. Now, there is nothing wrong with networking or being friends with TV executives, but when it compromises the quality of productions that is where it becomes cronyism. Some of these executives themselves have gone one better and set up production outfits on the side to be providing their stations with material to take advantage of government regulations that require at least 40% local content.
Kenya now has the quantity, but the quality is nothing to talk about. All this for one totally unfortunate reason; nowhere else has so low a premium been placed on scripting. Scriptwriters are at the bottom of the food chain, paid less than the camera operators! Just recently a producer I know advertised for a “compelling well written and rewritten script for a TV series” and willing to buy it at a measly Ksh 20,000 ( $200)! You should know that high schoos have been known to fork out more than double this amount for 45 minute plays for the national drama festivals. The script writer is almost an afterthought, and walks on thin ice because the producers can, on a whim, fire them and come up with a cheaper alternative, like writing it themselves however poor at it they are. It’s not like the TV station will turn it down,right?
It is probably correct to say that content for TV is controlled by ‘cartels ‘. Non creative cartels. So here we are, stuck with uninspiring shows and led to believe that this is the best the country has to offer. Moreover, we also constantly accused of not supporting our artists. Are we supposed to lap up the mediocre in the name of patriotism? Really? If Kenyans ran home 20 years ago to watch Tausi they can do it again even with all these cheap western shows lying about and it will begin with producers acknowledging that script is king and that Kenyans are intelligent.

It would be grossly incorrect if I have implied that the script writers are totally innocent here. Only a handful put in work investing in their craft and outrageously outraged when they are offered peanuts for their work. Writers need to wake up and realize how deeply important their input is in this industry as this is the only way they will work to improve their work before they organize themselves and demand higher pay.



The Futility of Getting Quality Film Education in Kenya

‘’Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach’’.

Heavy expectations have been placed on the Kenyan film industry, and rightly so. It is expected to not only create employment to hundreds of thousands of people, but go beyond that to project Kenya to the entire world as a country that takes this art form seriously to compete with the top film industries in the world. To this end, a few government universities introduced film schools in 2008 which was seen as a welcome move due to the high cost of the few private film schools available. The film program was an immediate hit and the classes were soon overcrowded. Then the crisis hit. Kenya had no qualified film tutors according to the public universities’ HR policies which require lecturers to have at least a Masters degree.

By this time, most of the small number of Kenyan filmmakers had never attended any formal film school and the few who had studied film abroad were too busy with their own projects. Kenyatta University, the first to offer this program poached two lecturers from the literature department to start the film department. Later, two experienced tutors joined them. With the other universities also rolling out film courses, and thousands of students enrolling, a disturbing question arose; ‘who was teaching these students?’ The situation has not gotten any better seven years on. A few students immediately enrolled in postgraduate degrees after getting their undergraduate degrees and are now teaching in the universities never mind that what they know they got from mostly unqualified teachers.

It is a fact that almost all film lecturers in Kenya have zero to minimum practical experience outside of school in what they teach. They are scholars wallowing through a system that glorifies papers over substance. They might argue that you don’t have to practice anything to teach it, but hold up. This is art, and for thousands of years it is has been taught by the masters. In the US, these tutors do actually have quite a number of practical gigs in their resume. Why insist on master artists as tutors instead of ‘green’ scholars? It is because these scholars can only pretend teach, but an artist can teach and inspire. What is an artist without inspiration after all?

Luke warm, uninspired students are unleashed into a competitive market believing that their certificate is enough. Shock on them, no employer asks for it. A producer only wants to view a portfolio while due to the limited resources in school, the student doesn’t have anything worthy to show yet universities are chest-thumping about the superior quality of their alumni. The students that succeed outside would never come back to teach, those that find the going rough outside opt to go back to teaching. Seems this problem is going to be here for a while if the ministry of education doesn’t intervene.



Do You Really Need Film School?

You get into a Kenyan university to study film pretty sure you want to be the next Wanuri. Oh sorry, you haven’t seen any of her works yet, have you? Ok, insert the name your favourite Hollywood director. You sit through dozens of classes, sweat through countless practicals, maneuvering through a system where you are torn between which annoys you more; underqualified and uninspiring lecturers or the inadequate hardware and software provided by the institution. After four years and a king’s ransom later you are hit with a bile-inducing reality: There is nothing about filmmaking that you were taught in that university that you could not have taught yourself through You Tube and the rest of the internet for free, you got that right, NOTHING!

Proper instructions and comprehensive demos from some of the top in their fields from all over the world, be it cinematographers, writers, camera operators, directors…the whole 9 yards. All you need is wifi. Talk about the system sticking it to you. After all, the lecturers lift notes from the internet, right? Now this is the most painful part, that you are stuck with a HELB loan that you are going to take a long time to repay or that your family made great sacrifice to pay your way through film school. And you still came out half-baked. What a waste of money that could have been put to better use.

A self-sponsored student pays about Ksh 80,000 per semester in a public university in an undergraduate program that covers 8 semesters. Ksh 640,000. All that and your parent/guardian is still responsible for feeding, clothing and paying high hostel fees among other expenses. Now, indulge me here, and I will assume here that you are a bright and self driven person. Imagine if instead of going to university you just took that 80k, paid 3 months rent ( a semester is 3 months) at 10k per month, paid internet at 4k per month that will be 42,000 per semester of unlimited lessons from the best from all over the world. If you lessened your parents burden a bit by paying your water and electricity bills as well you will have saved well over Ksh 200,000 out of the 640k., but of course it is not going to take you 24 months to learn filmmaking this way, I’m guessing it would take half that time if you are fully committed and that pushes your savings to over 400k. Now that you have this money, lets say your area of interest is editing, you could get pretty descent editing hardware and software for this amount and start your hustle in only a year. Hands up if you are going to quit film school today!

Who are we kidding here, of course you won’t quit. This is Kenya and the system has led you to believe that papers matter, that that degree is your key to success. Which Kenyan parent in there right mind will hug and kiss you when you tell them that for your further studies you’re gonna go Yego! I’ll tell you this from experience, unless you want to go into teaching, that certificate means jack out here. No one care where you studied leave alone asking for papers. The only thing that matters out here is what you can do, so we only look at portfolios. As you were.



Get Some Money Review

Title :         Get Some Money

Director: Biko Nyongesa

Writer:     Biko Nyongesa

Length:     7 minutes

Another Jesus film. But not exactly like you were told in Sunday school. Biko Nyongesa’s third short not only focuses on the Judas perspective, but also upsets the cart on so many levels it will have all you conservatives getting your holy books in a twist.

The story focuses on the events leading to Judas hanging himself with the film actually being part of a campaign against suicides. Being sort of a parody, the events take place in locations like Ghetto Semane and there is actually a love triangle involving Judas, Ticha (Jesus) and Magda (Mary Magdalene)!

Finishing 3rd runners up at the Machawood Festival was actually an injustice for such ground-breaking work in the Kenyan film scene. The film is breathtakingly fresh in its impeccably compelling cinematography and its clever employment of symbolism so brilliantly executed it makes you feel hyper intelligent when you get it. Few Kenyan films will make you feel like this. The music complimented the film well with catchy Kamba lyrics. However, you are left a bit confused when you are shown establishing shots of bright city light, symbols of urban modernity, but up close all you see is traditional tin lamps and people clothed in ancient robes.

This is a film for intelligent, open-minded people with a sense of humor. This is the group that can handle the sheer bravery with which the film tackles its main theme considering Kenya is still a very religious country. Hands down my best Kenyan film of 2015.