A couple of weeks ago we received a message from Kenya asking if we were interested in helping to promote a scheme which supports documentary filmmakers in East Africa. ‘Sema Stori’ simply means something like ‘tell a story’ in Swahili, so if you search for the title online, many different kinds of material pops up. What we are specifically concerned with here is a scheme linked to Docubox and Comic Relief (the tagline on the scheme’s website is ‘Stories that Speak’). The aim of the scheme is to offer mentorship by an established filmmaker and funding to make a documentary on one of four important topics: Mental Health, Early Childhood Development, Gender Justice, and the Right to Safe Secure Shelter and settlement. The scheme was promoted in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, offering up to £10,000 each for a maximum of ten films. The scheme had an applications deadline in May 2019 and the completed films have been made available in August 2020. You can access the films on the Facebook Channel of Sema Stori. Unfortunately, we have withdrawn from Facebook and closed our account so I have not been able to see the films. But since there are aspects of the programme presented elsewhere, I have decided to do some more research.
Documentary in East Africa
There is a long tradition of documentary filmmaking with a focus on ‘social documentary’ in East Africa and in other anglophone African countries. This is often seen to derive from the legacy of British colonial film policy which saw documentary film as a means of aiding social education. (It was also a means of propagandising on behalf of British interests) At the time of independence in the 1960s it did also provide the new nation states with some basic infrastructure and a small group of trained personnel. In other parts of Africa, similar ‘legacies’ meant that the early film cultures of the new nation states followed a different trajectory to that of francophone ex-colonies where French colonial policy promoted French culture and laid a foundation for more artistically inclined films in countries such as Senegal or Ivory Coast. The British-influenced documentary approach resulted in what some commentators described as ‘development filmmaking’. In the last ten years, 50 years after the end of the colonial period, we might expect this legacy to be no longer visible but it seems to have survived in a changed and updated way.
Who are Docubox? Here is the statement on the front of their website:
DOCUBOX IS THE EAST AFRICAN DOCUMENTARY FILM FUND
We exist to enable talented, driven, focused and accountable East African artists to produce unique films that unearth new realities and cross trans-national boundaries. Through training, development and production grants, screenings for people who love documentary films, we promote East African filmmakers and share their unique stories with the world through creative documentary. We currently fund fiction under The Box.
Based in Nairobi, Docubox in the modern parlance of film development work, appears to be an important hub – an organisation that brings together funders such as NGOs, charities and other resources with aspiring filmmakers, and practitioners prepared to take on mentoring roles. Its aim is to promote film as an agency for social change. One of the driving forces behind Docubox is Judy Kibinge who was born in Kenya, lived in the US as a small child and educated in schools and higher education in the UK before working in advertising, corporate video productions and eventually as an independent filmmaker in Kenya, gaining an international reputation. Docubox is a Kenyan organisation but its funding partners include the British Council, The Danish Centre for Culture and Development (CKU), the Ford Foundation, Comic Relief and Hivos – People Unlimited (Netherlands). Docubox has used the available funding to create a range of projects covering both social documentary and fiction and as well as online screenings it has organised documentary screenings in Nairobi courtesy of the screening facilities of Alliance Française. In this way it has helped many aspiring filmmakers to gain exposure.
Comic Relief is a UK-based charity founded by the scriptwriter Richard Curtis and the comedian and actor Lenny Henry in 1985 as a response to the Ethiopian famine. Since then it has grown significantly raising money from biennial ‘Red Nose Days’ which feature community fund-raising initiatives and a ‘charity telethon’. I have to confess that this is not something I have watched or taken part in for a whole host of reasons so I can’t really comment on the venture. A spin-off from the television coverage has involved various UK TV personalities making trips to Africa in particular to discover how the money raised has been spent. Again I haven’t watched any of these, but they have attracted some criticism with suggestions that they reinforce negative typing of Africa and Africans. Because of this I’m slightly wary of Comic Relief’s role in Docubox but it is reassuring to see that Docubox is purely Kenyan.
Docubox clearly want to see proposals for films that focus on personal stories rather than traditional investigative reports with ‘expert’ talking heads. They demonstrate this by offering examples on their website. I haven’t managed to see the films produced for the project, but I have discovered several of the video statements made by filmmakers who I assume applied. You can check the Docubox advice on how to submit and watch the short statements below (they are each only a few minutes long).
Finally I found a statement by someone who I think has been successful in making a film for the project. I think this is Eugene Muigai and his film is called ‘It’s Okay Not To Be Okay’ which should have appeared on the Facebook page of Sema Stori earlier in August.
The Good Lie is an intriguing film – a Hollywood-funded production distributed by Warner Bros featuring Reese Witherspoon, executive-produced by Ron Howard and directed by the Québecois auteur Philippe Falardeau, an Oscar nominee for Monsieur Lazhar (Canada 2011). It defies easy assumptions in its negotiation of the idea of a ‘feelgood film’. On IMDb it rates a 7.4 user score with many highly enthusiastic user reviews. Yet Warner Bros. released it in North America on less than 500 screens. In the UK, Canadian mini-major eOne opened the film in just 23 cinemas – this tiny release passed me by and I should certainly have sought out the film in cinemas in 2015. In retrospect this reluctance by the major distributors should have warned us what to expect for the release of Disney’s Queen of Katwe (2016).
The link between Queen of Katwe and The Good Lie is American overseas aid/charities in Kenya. The Good Lie tells the story of a small group of the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ – the children of villages in southern Sudan who fled when their homes were attacked and their parents killed by soldiers from the north during the civil war in the 1980s. These children and young teenagers walked several hundred miles before reaching a refugee camp in Kenya and then had to wait a further dozen years or so before being offered refugee status in the US in 2000. Two important family issues arise for the small group and the narrative drive of the film develops two separate strands – how the refugees struggle to come to terms with life in the US and how these two family issues are resolved. The film’s resolution is certainly upbeat, but it isn’t a typical Hollywood ending.
With a major star like Reese Witherspoon attached to the project The Good Lie certainly had the profile to attract audiences, but the obvious worry would be how the Sudanese actors (most of whom are themselves refugees from the conflict) would perform alongside Ms Witherspoon. I think that they all do a good job in individual scenes. The main problem is that there isn’t really enough screen time to allow Witherspoon’s character (initially professionally distanced as an employment consultant) to develop a real emotional attachment to the success of the refugees’ settlement in the Mid-West. She seems to switch almost instantaneously and to become involved in the solving of a refugee family problem. However, the narrative’s main concern is the progress of the refugee narrative and that is how it should be.
I was a little taken aback by some of the events following the arrival of the refugees in Kansas and the actions of the immigration officials seemed outrageous in one respect. At one point I found the jokes about the unfamiliarity of aspects of American culture just seemed to go too far but overall I guess Falardeau and scriptwriter Margaret Nagle keep the ‘strangeness’ theme in check. I have to admit that watching films about refugees from Africa and parts of Asia in the US from a European perspective is quite odd. Both refugees and their Mid-West hosts seem almost entirely clueless about each other’s culture. In the UK, it often seems as if refugees who make it this far (i.e. often travelling through Europe) are much more aware of what to expect when they arrive and most host cities know what to expect when welcoming them. However, this particular narrative which flies young adults straight from a Kenya camp to an American city with presumably much less experience of refugees is significantly different. I don’t want to spoil the narrative resolution but the writer Margaret Nagle (best known for acting in and writing TV dramas) and Falardeau manage a satisfactory bittersweet ending which undermines any sugary sense of feelgood. One of the family stories works out but the other is negotiated. The title gives a clue to one aspect of the story and derives from a passage in Huckleberry Finn. It’s also worth pointing out that the early scenes in the film are violent and upsetting.
Reading some of the US reviews and background, it seems that Margaret Nagle did a considerable amount of research, interviewing refugees and those responsible for their placement in the US. In addition two of the producers had direct experience of taking in refugees or visiting some of the Kenyan locations. I get the impression that some of the push behind the film may have come from Christian groups in the US. I’ve seen some questionable activities by missionary charities in documentaries in Sudan, but in this film it seems to be humanitarian charity that brings the refugees to the US.
The Good Lie is certainly a global production with infrastructure in Africa being supplied/accessed via South Africa. Director Falardeau (experienced in shooting around the world) also took with him his cinematographer Roland Plante and editor Richard Comeau from Québéc. The Indian connection comes via Reliance, the Indian media major which has invested heavily in Hollywood productions for several years now.
The Good Lie is certainly worth seeking out as a particular kind of film about migration. It might be interesting to compare it with the rather different migration of Palestinians to the US in Amreeka (US-Canada-Kuwait 2009).
Nowhere in Africa is an engrossing film and it is no surprise that it won the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2002. It is adapted from an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig in which she explores her childhood experience of arriving in Kenya in 1938. On the Region 2 DVD Zweig says that one of the features of the film that she appreciated most was the representation of rural Africa. She felt that writer-director Caroline Link had captured the beauty that she had experienced as a child without resorting to the simply picturesque or exotic (“no lions or leopards”). This is an important observation which rings true. The film raises a number of unanswered questions but in respect of its images it is certainly one of the best European perspectives on Africa in the mid 20th century.
1938. Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), a successful lawyer in Hesse, has left Germany and taken a job as farm manager in Kenya. He fears the rise of the Nazis and as a (non-practising) Jew thinks it wise to leave his comfortable middle-class existence for rural Africa. Stricken with malaria he has arranged for his wife and small daughter to join him. Jettel (Juliane Köhler) enjoys her comfortable life and ignores her husband’s plea to bring useful items. 8 year-old Regina is less happy in Germany and immediately takes to Africa and especially to her father’s cook Owuor who has used local knowledge to care for Walter during his bout of malaria. When war breaks Walter is interned by the British and Jettel and Regina lose their home but with the help of Nairobi’s Jewish community solutions are found and the family are soon together again on a different farm. The film follows the family up until their departure from Kenya in 1947 when they return to Germany. The drama comes from the different experiences of each member of the family as well as the relationships between them (and with Owuor and the local Pokot people). The fifth major character is Süsskind, another German Jewish man who migrated earlier than Walter and who helps the Redlich family at various times.
The narrative is constructed in retrospect by Regina as she travels back to Germany in 1947. The film begins and ends with her voiceover. The three central characters each represent a different approach to the problems of migration. Walter is the rationalist (though he also claims to be an idealist). They had to leave. He doesn’t want to be a farmer but he’ll buckle down. The war changes him – he joins the British Army in Kenya and he uses the demobilisation scheme to get the family back to Germany. Jettel follows a classic Hollywood ‘journey’. Initially she finds it hard to adjust and her middle-class, European stance makes it difficult for her to get on with Owuor and the local people. Eventually though she becomes a farmer and is reluctant to return. Jettel’s story might have made a conventional melodrama. Regina ‘blossoms’ in Africa. She is the narrator of the story and she mixes not only with Owuor but also the local children. It is not until she attends an English boarding school in Nairobi that she feels ‘alien’. Since she makes the transition over nine years from little girl to bright teenager it is more difficult to assess how she feels in the closing scenes (since she now understands more about her parents’ marriage).
Nowhere in Africa is a long film (140 mins) and some critics/reviewers have argued that the narrative drive is lost in the final third. There is something in this charge and sometimes the film does feel more like a memoir of a period than a filmic narrative in the mainstream sense. This might also take something away from those unanswered questions.
British colonial Africa
Nowhere in Africa was commercially successful in Germany ($10 million) and in North America ($6 million). The third biggest territory was Spain (over $2 million) and then Australia. In the UK, Box Office Mojo quotes $400,00 – not bad for a subtitled film, but half the Australian total and not much more than Argentina ($370,000). The first three UK reviews of the film that I found each see the film as underwhelming, simplistic, ‘safe’ etc. These reviews also tend to be inaccurate as well as missing some of the interesting angles. Perhaps the film suffered from comparisons – to Polanski’s The Pianist and Out of Africa, the Isaak Dinesen story that became a Hollywood melodrama with Meryl Streep? I’m not sure that either is a useful comparison, though Out of Africa does share several important elements. The reviews don’t really pick up the colonial melodrama issues that interest me. In several ways, the most interesting link would be to the Claire Denis film Chocolat (France/WGer/Cameroon 1988) – which also features the daughter of middle-class Europeans and their family servants.
Kenya has always been prominent in British cinema’s relationship with colonial Africa – and with the whole ideological terrain of colonialism, independence struggles and post-colonialism. Putting aside the specific case of South Africa, Kenya was perhaps the most attractive colony for European settlement, based to some extent on plantation development for tea, coffee and maize. The climate and the fertility in the ‘White Highlands’ of Central Kenya meant that they were reserved for white settlers by the colonial administrations – displacing local farmers and reducing grazing land for nomadic peoples. The settlers were mainly middle-class British, but also other Europeans and in UK popular culture their lifestyle was seen as hedonistic in the ‘Happy Valley’ region – later represented in the film White Mischief (UK 1987). The exclusivity in this region also helped to encourage local political independence movements which began to be active in the 1920s and grew in strength immediately after 1945. In the early 1950s the same area became an important location for British adventure films including Where No Vultures Fly (1951) – which dealt with game poaching and the struggle to establish national parks in Kenya.
Nowhere in Africa is interesting in not really featuring the British upper middle-class settlers and instead offering more practical settler-farmers with few graces. One farmer has to use the cook as a translator in talking to Walter as he has learned some Swahili but not English. When Jettel and Regina are interred in a hotel in Nairobi, however, it is a very upmarket establishment and their other experiences include meeting the Nairobi Jewish community, who are British and middle-class, and experiencing the boarding school. When they do begin effective farming, the crop is maize which was mainly introduced by the British as a cash crop. The simmering political unrest is not directly represented – though arguably it is still there. One of the telling lines of dialogue is from an old man who Walter meets when he starts work on the second farm. The man says he knows the land and can help – he’s known it for 40 years. He then says that “if someone steals your cow and eats it, you can forget it. But if they steal your land it is still there and you’ll never forget it”. He is prepared to help because Walter is not a ‘bwana’ who seeks to get rich by stealing more land. This is one of the scenes in which Regina is not present and therefore one she must invent from what she understands happened to her parents. The whole narrative is narrated from her perspective – which was a child’s and then a teenager’s. She was at that age less interested in politics and more in love with the country and its (native) peoples.
I would recommend Nowhere in Africa for several reasons, including excellent performances by the principals. It offers a different European perspective on Africa, one that is still eurocentric but is less trapped in the coloniser-colonised binary. It’s also a film about a girl growing up that to my ageing male eye seems to be authentic and well worth engaging with. I’d also be interested in a film which told the parents’ story in more detail. I found the film in the bargain bin at Fopp (£3 for a DVD) and I consider it money well spent.