The R-Evolution in Kenyan Film Is Here!

The revolution is here. It will not be televised. It will be on the silver screen. Of course we are not dead to the fact that it came too late, just let us, for now, look at the positive side; that it is finally happening. Our film scene desperately needed an injection of fresh-thinking, young and ambitious filmmakers to save the country from status quo long established and protected by the old guard. The old guard who’s target market is definitely not the urban Kenyan youth weaned on sophisticated western films, and who put out products only ambitious enough to cross county borders, never international ones. The introduction of relatively inexpensive public film schools seven years ago is now bearing dividends going by the buzz going on of works in progress and international awards and nominations among the new breed of ‘learned’ filmmakers starting to roll in and the future of Kenyan film is acquiring some glitter.

The Alice Kombani produced film Angles of My Face won the Best Short Film category at the 2015 Zanzibar International Film Festival. The production of that film was done by Kenyatta University students and this could be the first of many awards considering this was a debut both for Alice and the director, Manu. The organization around the production was commendable and it culminated in a glamorous premiere at IMAX Nairobi. Another former KU student, Biko Nyongesa’s short film Mizizi, is in the post production phase. This film gets an honourable mention here because it is both the most hyped and anticipated Kenyan film on social media, ever. The producers, OFL Group, have consistently kept the public informed on the production phases right from the beginning where they started with a script pitch fest (won by Jediliah Manga) ,to the current phase with a countdown to the trailer release on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

The old order of recouping money entirely from selling copies or from the box office (for the very few that have made it there) has been upset. The OFL Group are into merchandise too and are now selling Mizizi t-shirts and who knows, they could get a significant amount of their cash back even before the film is out! These young people are putting the biz in showbiz. The fact that these high standards are being set by students and freshly graduated filmmakers has excited the industry with a much needed breath of fresh air. Bench marks are getting set here, both in the artistic and the business side and this should be an inspiring call to all young filmmakers: be innovative and creative in your art, and also in the ways of making money from it!




What Angles?

Film        : Angles of My Face

Director  :Manu Maina

Writer     :Alice Kombani

Cast        :Alexander Owiti, Esther Gicheha, Malik Kombani, Sylvia Wanjiruangles

It was one of those rare times I get to hear that a Kenyan movie is showing at Imax. I had to see it. This is a directorial debut by Manu Maina teaming up with first-time producer/writer Alice Kombani for a 15 minute revisit of the 2007/2008 post-election violence tracing the shadows of Bresson’s Pieces for Peace and Judy Kibinge’s Something Necessary. Angles of my Face is about Sofia and her husband Manche who live in a camp for displaced people in the aftermath of the violence. The story explores how they battle with trauma, as well as an ethnically charged neighbour,  individually and as a family against staggering odds. Most of the cast and crew is made up of Kenyatta University film and theatre students most of them working on a project of this size for the first time, and although this was clearly evident, there were a few sparks of brilliance in the film.

In a rare feat for an armature director, Manu Maina commendably tried to let the camera speak in this film. (Spoiler Alert:) From the suspense, urgency and turmoil created by the shaky hand-held camera when Sofia goes into labour in her shed with only her little son Taraji to help, to the incredibly profound and powerful birds-eye-view long static shot of two nurses helping her deliver the baby before she dies from bleeding and we get to see it from outside the tent in a silhouette while Taraji sits outside in the dark night with his back to the tent terrified. The disturbing beauty about that scene was in watching Sofia lose her life, in real time, leaving me feeling just like Taraji; helpless and sad.

You were waiting for a ‘but’ and here it comes. But in this decent debut, and I call it decent because it is generally good, a couple of school-boy errors put a blot on what would have been a fantastic picture. While the director moved in for close-ups when he should have, the cast were not credible up close. Sophia tried, and failed, to conjure a tear in a close up after a tribal hate jibe by her neighbour, only managing an unconvincing dry sob. What would have been a beautiful end is ruined by Manches cliche acting and a translation error when the word taraji (correct translation – expectation) is mistranslated as ‘hope’ and yet the end hinged immensely on getting that translation right. Moreover, as much as I tried, I could not relate the title to the film. Strangely enough, neither could Alice Kombani at the subsequent Q&A session after the premiere! That was quite a shock to me. The tricky thing with a short film like this is that even 3 mistakes is a lot given that they happen within such a short time.

In it’s approach in tackling the PEV, this film has only done to support an opinion that I have held for many years. Kenyan filmmakers lack courage. They prefer playing safe by avoiding controversy while hiding under the pretense of ‘maintaining peace’. Why use fictitious names of tribes like Watiri? It was equally difficult to relate with any of the character names too because they were either too unfamiliar or were straight out a high school set book set up where characters are given symbolic names. I believe we have grown up and we can handle handle a film and artists should not let a few immature people in the society ground their freedom.

PS – This should be a first in the history of film criticism; honouring a poster. This honourable mention it is in recognition of that amazing poster. I rank it the best ever for a Kenyan film, by far, although the film struggles to fulfill the expectation it creates.

Riverwood Oscars

The Riverwood fraternity gathered at a lavish ceremony (by Riverwood standards) to mark the second annual Riverwood Academy Awards at the garden of the Alliance Francais in Nairobi. I missed last year’s and I had never attended A Riverwood event before so I was pretty curious.As I approached the venue, I met part of the Consigned to Oblivion team of Marvin Kariuki, who was a Best Cinematography nominee, and Mitch Mwangi looking anxious. I entered the lobby and there was a lively buzz; guests arriving, the cameras clicking away at the red carpet and some lively music.
First person I recognized was Mwaniki Mageria, who was omnipresent throughout, welcoming guests at the door then running to mcee at the podium. Riverwood being a sector constantly bashed for below par productions, the set up was quite commendable. I panned around for more familiar faces and there was Nini Wacera seated on a high stool looking elegant but busy on her phone, she later gave out one of the awards.river A lovely hostess showed me to my seat after passing accreditation and seeing that I did not know details of the program, I sat there looking around. Trust me this was no Oscars, I’m talking about the dressing. It was a pretty drab affair and most peple looked like they were coming from church. Calif Record’s Clemo wore baggy jeans and a crumpled hoodie. Turns out this event was going to be live on QTV, the crew was testing their equipment, another feather to the organizer’s cap.

Meanwhile, Mwaniki continued to wear down the carpet shuttling between the  stage and the door at amazing speeds. I turned to social media to follow the action as I listened to stale jokes from Maasai the comedian, not many tweets mentioning the event.

The ceremony finally kicked off, screams filling the air as the nominees for the first category were read. Consigned to Oblivion went on to bag Best Student Film and Best Cinematography. The winners elated, but I started getting bored because almost all of them ‘didn’t expect to win’. Seated at the back, I was a bit distracted when theatre patrons emptied into the lobby from the auditorium after a play creating a noisy din for quite a long time during which i couldn’t hear any of the proceedings. When the nose subsided, Maasai was introducing a rapper who proceeded to mime over his song, I hate that. Mwaniki’s job also included reminding the DJ, all the time, to play some music as the winners walked down to the podium which was pretty annoying. The organizers of this ceremony need to realise that they should hire a proper MC beffitting a film awards ceremony in the future. You see, you can’t pick your local funeral, harambee and weddings MC for this kind of event. Mwaniki and Maasai robbed this event of glamour, if at all it was supposed to be glamorous.

Somewhere in the middle of the program there was a long break where a short clip was screening and it was sad to see that many guests (read actors, directors etc) snubbed it, walked to the back and started catching up creating so much noise for us seated there. They didn’t bother to resume their seat when the show continued, and from there the ceremony went down hill for me. At the end I meet Marvin Kariuki beaming from ear to ear with his award in one arm, his girlfriend in the other. At least someone had enjoyed this ceremony.

Strength of a Woman : Movie Review

Title :        Strength of  womanSWP

Writer:      Manasseh Chege

Diresctor: Gilbert Lukalia

Starring:    Rose Njoroge, Ashford Kirimi, Leila Laura Wangari

The expectations I place in a movie I’m about to watch is usually so great, almost to a fault. The feeling of being lured into someone else’s shoes and consequently shouldering their burdens, embracing their fears and rejoicing in their triumphs is addictive to me. So I watch countless movies looking for a high. Many times I’m disappointed and most times I feel good. Then, once in a blue moon I come across a ‘keeper’. This is a movie I would like to take home, to add to my collection of movies I can watch again or talk about for a long time to come. This movie is a ‘keeper’.

Behind the scenes of Strength of a Woman. Picture courtesy of producers.
Behind the scenes of Strength of a Woman. Picture courtesy of producers.
        Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it is a perfect picture, but the artistic integrity it has achieved cannot go unnoticed or without commendation. Strength of a Woman is a film about Julia (Rose Njoroge) a teenage girl, and her struggles to make a better life for her self by finishing school in the face of poverty and a jackass of a father, Fundi (Ashford Kirimi) who frustrates her at every turn. This award-winning film (5 Kalashas including Best Script and Best Picture) takes the audience on an emotional journey alongside Julia and her mother through the ultimate betrayal by fundi.
Gilbert Lukalia, better known in Kenya as an actor, has clearly pushed the boundaries by this film. I have yet to watch a Kenyan film where the camera was allowed to speak so loudly and clearly like this one. The pace, the camera movements, and cinematography were well thought out and a strong philosophical footprint and backing is evident.
The film adopts a mostly European style; a slow pace and lingering shots that creates a more intimate connection between the film and the audience.

Rose Njoroge during the shoot
Rose Njoroge during the shoot

My favourite shot happens in the outside kitchen scene when Julia’s mother is giving her suffering daughter money for school fees through the window mesh. Julia is in the dark, smoky kitchen and the spaces between the timber wall lets in rays of sunlight slashing through the darkness and the smoke to settle on Julia from above. Gave me a feeling that there is a deity somewhere looking out for Julia, that every thing is going to be okay. The production team also went to a great deal of trouble to get original music scores for the film and it definitely paid off, so on point in all the scenes.

       Like I mentioned, this film wasn’t without it’s faults. Inconsistent lighting being one of them, especially in the scenes that employed a lamp as a practical light. Issues may also be raised on how it went about showing the strength of women.  I’m tired of seeing women shown as strong only when the men around them fail. The strength of Julia and her mother is based entirely on Fundi’s cruelty. Ashford Kirimi executes his role so well I dare say this movie be given a title along the lines of ‘The stupid man’.
It is a movie that will definitely give you value for your time and money and it will be screening at the Prestige Plaza, Ngong Road starting the 5th.

Festival Review: Udada Festival

This past week I experienced something rare. I, a man, got to see the world through the eyes of women. I got to see firsthand their fears and hopes, their struggles and victories. All this was in the course of the just concluded inaugural Udada Film Festival. The festival, held in Nairobi, is dedicated to films made by women from all over the world and the second of it’s kind in Africa after International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF), in Harare, Zimbabwe. Udada seeks to highlight women issues as well as celebrate the achievements made by women in the filmmaking arena.  It kicked of with a decent opening ceremony at the Kenya Museum’s Louis Leakey Auditorium and concluded with an award ceremony at Alliance Francaise’s Wangari Maathai Auditorium while most of the screenings took place at the Goethe Institut. Ekwe Msangi’s short Soko Sonko was a fitting start to the festival with it’s discourse-provoking as well as hilarious style, sharp in contrast to the final film Auf Unseren Herzen (Dust in Our Hearts), starring Stephanie Stremler,which was pretty somber.

Matrid Nyagah speaking at the launch of the festival.
Matrid Nyagah speaking at the launch of the festival.

About 65 of the 150 submitted films were screened in 5 days. Workshops covering areas ranging from copyright issues to film criticism to film distributions were also conducted with actress Stephanie Stremler coming from Germany to conduct the acting workshop. The films showcased were a looking glass into issues affecting women all over the world today.From a sick woman barely getting her husband to take their young daughter to the salon to get her hair braided when all he want is to go watch a Gor Mahia FC match in Soko Sonko, to a young woman overcoming cultural inhibitions to become a flying nurse in Ann Mungai’s 1998 Kenyan classic Saikati The Enkabaani, to Alberto Pernet’s short, Maria, about a broke woman’s pain after a blow to her dignity and pride when she has to beg for food from a cafe. Plenty of heavily themed films that could make watching all of them quite a draining experience( but maybe I’m just being a man) so I just watched a good number of them. For a fist-time festival, I have to commend the three directors; Wanjiru Kinyanjui, one of the pioneer filmmakers in Kenya and a lecturer in film studies at the Multi-Media University, Matrid Nyagah, her former student at Kenyatta University’s Department of Theatre Arts and Film, and Naomi Mwaura, a young champion of women empowerment. I reckon it was a heavy task putting together the festival though I suppose Wanjiru’s experience from being one of the organizers of the now dead Kenya International Film Festival came in handy. That said, the festival had a few hiccups that were too elementary even for a new festival. The computer kept shutting down every five minutes disrupting my immersion into the films and ruining my movie experience. I also missed a workshop because it started more that 2 hours late and I could not wait any more. This though didn’t hinder the general success of the festival. It had been a long time since we had any notable Kenyan film festival, making Udada a much needed breath of fresh air that wields immense potential.