It is time to support Kenyan creatives, to tell our stories our way

Wednesday April 11 2018

A screengrab of a scene from the short film Watu Wote. PHOTO | COURTESY

A screengrab of a scene from the short film Watu Wote. PHOTO | COURTESY 

By IRUNGU HOUGHTON
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Kenya’s inner soul was laid bare by three locally-made movies that premiered at the Nairobi Film Festival last week.

Through them, viewers learn that he-roes and she-roes come in unexpected personalities and places. The country does not need Facebook, Twitter, Hollywood or Nollywood, citizens here are a social network.

The three films reflect three important social commentaries on the state of the country.

Watu Wote is based on the inspiring story of brave bus passengers in the northern county of Mandera, whom in 2015, refused to point out the Christians among them to Al Shabaab terrorists who had attacked the bus. The passengers were led by a primary school teacher and now national hero, Salah Farah. Farah succumbed to his wounds six weeks later.

The powerfully shot and well-acted short movie earned its place in history as the first Kenyan movie to be nominated for an Oscar. It reminds viewers how much courage is needed to fight intolerance and hatred.

The second movie is Supa Modo, on a terminally ill 9-year-old Joanna and her community that rallies around her dream to be a super hero. Screened in Berlin recently, the movie was watched by over 1,000 German children who then took pictures of themselves wearing khangas as Supa Modo capes.

A comedy, the movie also touches on issues of affordable healthcare, absentee fatherhood and the power of women in rallying communities.

The third movie is New Moon. It addresses the looming impact of the $3.5 billion Lamu port project in Lamu county. A world Heritage Site, it is often said that Lamu island has one car, 2,000 donkeys, no modern electricity or sewage system. But once complete, the Lamu Port will attract ships half the size of the entire island. With this new moon, much will be lost, and much could be gained.

Violent extremism, community action and the displacement that comes with mega infrastructural projects are very Kenyan themes right now. This is not new.

The Kenyan film industry has always been dominated by fictional movies and documentaries that explore poverty, social injustice and exclusion.

Nairobi Half-Life remains one of the most powerful indictment on inequality, criminality and unlawful police killings.

What is new, is that with the right levers, the movie industry seems set to expand the country’s creative economy dramatically.

Barely six years ago, Kenyan film producers and distributors known by the moniker, Riverwood, and led by Mwaniki Mageria, were warned that locally-made movies were generally of poor quality and lacked sophistication compared with those from Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood, and would never catch on with viewers.

They persisted and today Riverwood Ensemble boasts of 200 film producers. Kenyan funder Docubox now offers Ksh200,000 for creative film ideas.

New Moon would never have been made without their support. They now plan to get filmmaking into the new primary school curriculum. With the proper support, the film industry could make just under a billion shillings ($100 million) annually in under two years.

But this will not happen unless the public supports the industry. These movies and Kevin Njue’s 18 Hours about paramedic Brian Odhiambo in the headline story of accident victim Alex Madaga who spent 18 hours shuttling between hospitals deserve to be seen by millions.

Sadly, the country has only 10 or so professional movie theatres and tickets are beyond the reach of most people. Live-streaming and piracy aside, these movies will probably not be seen by more than 40,000 people in the country at most.

To avoid isolating creatives nationally and internationally, the country needs to launch an independent film fund, fast-track policy changes to provide incentives and tax rebates, reduce the regulations and link the industry to learning institutions.

Kenya is a movie making machine, with the popular culture and politics exploding with movie scripts begging to be written. From unexplained political murders to monkeys that allegedly shut down the national power grid and criminal cases that beg belief. 

The three movies I have cited teach viewers that the most powerful movies are those that bring out the best in society, reminding it of the empowered, engaged and ethical people within it.

Those that have the decency and the courage of the late Salah Farah to say, “You will have to kill all of us or leave us alone.”

Irungu Houghton is a Nairobi-based social and political commentator. E-mail: irungu.houghton @gmail.com