What Makes a Film Kenyan? : Lessons from Nairobi Half Life

  It is a question that bugged my colleagues and I in film school. Many theories and criteria were bandied about; a Kenyan director makes a film Kenyan, or there has to be a certain percentage of Kenyan cast and crew in a production, or the location, or even the source of the production funds. For some, all of these are to be factored in. This is a debate that never stopped and it therefore came as no surprise when it gained renewed traction upon the release of Nairobi Half Life in 2012. This film is a co-production between Kenya and Germany made possible through the collaboration between One Fine Day Films and DW Akademie and it generated quite a buzz along the lines of which country it belongs to. Even the Oscar committee in Kenya took a while debating ‘how Kenyan it really is’ before submitting it to the Oscars. So, what is the nationality of Nairobi Half Life?

Nairobi Half Life Poster
Nairobi Half Life Poster

It surprised, and even angered, most participants at a copyright seminar in Nairobi recently to learn that the film has a German certificate of origin. After all, there could not be a more final assertion as to which country it belonged. See, having this document means that the film fulfills all the criteria that make a film German, according to German regulations. Some felt Kenya had been cheated out of ownership of the film by the Germans. For most of the rest, it confirmed what they had ’known’ all along; it is a German film, and that would mean we were exploited right? Let us hold our horses a bit and look at it. Germany, like most European countries, has film funds, and I mean real ones, not like the government loans we have here disguised as film fund. Consequently, there are regulations guiding the accessibility to these monies by German filmmakers either for internal productions or for co-productions with foreign countries, one of them being that a film acquires a certificate of origin. To get this this document for a co-production, a producer needs to prove to the German ministry of culture that the film has ‘significant German involvement’. NHL COULD NOT prove this. After a meeting with the minister, the producers were given the certificate on ‘special grounds’.

It was a money issue. Period. Remove the free money attached to the certificate of origin and nobody would apply for it. Our government does not issue film grants, if it did, there would have been no need to get it from Germany. Furthermore, just like a person can have dual citizenship, so can a film. It is unfortunate that I have not met any filmmaker in Kenya who has any idea if at all there exists a set of criteria made by the government that qualify a film to be Kenyan, or a Kenyan certificate of origin for that matter. Even if there was, what would be the point of getting the certification when there are no benefits attached to it? A certificate of origin should come with incentives e.g. grants and/or tax breaks. In addition, the national criterion for the nationalization of a film has to be set by the government. Nairobi Half Life had to get a German certification not only to get funding, but also to open ways for access to distribution. Meanwhile, the Kenya Film Commission, the Department of Film Services and the Kenya Film Classification Board are engaged in a bureaucratic love triangle, each blaming their inefficiency on the other two.

Since we don’t have legal guidelines defining what a Kenyan film is, let anyone who what to classify their film as Kenyan be. This is a pointless debate, not worthy of all the noise it is generating at all. If we all just stopped being emotional and dropped our false sense of patriotism and looked at this soberly, you will realize that it would not matter if the money for producing our films came from Germany or Kyrgyzstan as long as, ultimately, we use it to tell Kenyan stories.


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